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  xTuesday, October 14, 2003

plame scandal update


Sunday's Washington Post ran a story that recaps the progress of the Justice Department investigation and shines a lot more light on the scandal itself.
In their interviews, FBI agents are asking questions about events going back to at least early June, the sources said. That indicates investigators are examining not just who passed the information to Novak and other reporters but also how Plame's name may have first become linked with Wilson and his mission, who did it and how the information made its way around the government.

Administration sources said they believe that the officials who discussed Plame were not trying to expose her, but were using the information as a tool to try to persuade reporters to ignore Wilson. The officials wanted to convince the reporters that he had benefited from nepotism in being chosen for the mission.

What started as political gossip and damage control has become a major criminal investigation that has already harmed the administration and could be a problem for President Bush for months to come.

One reason investigators are looking back is that even before Novak's column appeared, government officials had been trying for more than a month to convince journalists that Wilson's mission was not as important as it was being portrayed. Wilson concluded during the 2002 mission that there was no solid evidence for the administration's assertion that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium in Niger to develop nuclear weapons, and he angered the White House when he became an outspoken critic of the war.

The FBI is trying to determine when White House officials and members of the vice president's staff first focused on Wilson and learned about his wife's employment at the agency. One group that may have known of the connection before that time is the handful of CIA officers detailed to the White House, where they work primarily on the National Security Council staff. A former NSC staff member said one or more of those officers may have been aware of the Plame-Wilson relationship.

...Investigators are trying to establish the chain of events leading to the leak because, for a successful prosecution under the law prohibiting unauthorized disclosure of a covert U.S. officer's name, the disclosure must have been intentional, the accused must have known the person was a covert officer and the identity must not have been disclosed earlier.

...On July 7, the White House admitted it had been a mistake to include the 16 words about uranium in Bush's State of the Union speech. Four days later, with the controversy dominating the airwaves and drowning out the messages Bush intended to send during his trip in Africa, CIA Director George J. Tenet took public blame for failing to have the sentence removed.

That same week, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post for an article published Sept. 28. The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson.

"It was unsolicited," the source said. "They were pushing back. They used everything they had."

Joshua Marshall expounds upon the article.

The New York Times, which has been behind the curve on the Plame story, nonetheless added fuel to the fire with this Nicholas Kristol article that, among other things, explored the possibility that Plame's identity may already have been compromised by the infamous Aldrich Ames. (Note: If true, it still doesn't excuse the Administration's actions or make disclosing her covert status any less of a crime.) As a "counterweight," Joshua Marshall pointed to this Knight-Ridder story: Leak of CIA officers leaves trail of damage
the leak by Bush administration officials of that CIA officer's identity may have damaged U.S. national security to a much greater extent than generally realized, current and former agency officials say.

Plame, the wife of former ambassador and Bush critic Joseph Wilson, was a member of a small elite-within-an-elite, a CIA employee operating under "nonofficial cover," in her case as an energy analyst, with little or no protection from the U.S. government if she got caught.

Training agents such as Plame, 40, costs millions of dollars and requires the time-consuming establishment of elaborate fictions, called "legends," including in this case the creation of a CIA front company that helped lend plausibility to her trips overseas.

Compounding the damage, the front company, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, whose name has been reported previously, apparently also was used by other CIA officers whose work now could be at risk, according to Vince Cannistraro, formerly the agency's chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis.

Now, Plame's career as a covert operations officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations is over. Those she dealt with - whether on business or not - may be in danger. The DO is conducting an extensive damage assessment.

And Plame's exposure may make it harder for American spies to convince foreigners to share important secrets with them, U.S. intelligence officials said.

Bush partisans tend to downplay the leak's damage, saying Plame's true job was widely known in Washington, if unspoken. And, they say, she had moved from the DO, the CIA's covert arm, to an analysis job.

But intelligence professionals, infuriated over the breach and what they see as the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence on Iraq, vehemently disagree.

Larry Johnson - a former CIA and State Department official who was a 1985 classmate of Plame's in the CIA's case officer-training program at Camp Peary, Va., known as "the Farm" - predicted that when the CIA's internal damage assessment is finished, "at the end of the day, (the harm) will be huge and some people potentially may have lost their lives."

"This is not just another leak. This is an unprecedented exposing of an agent's identity," said former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, who's now a prosecutor in Royal Oak, Mich., and who also did CIA training with Plame.

There's an important point to remember here. The extent of damage the blowing of Plame's cover will likely not become a matter of public knowledge. Not knowing how much damage it caused does not excuse the leak, nor should it encourage oprimistic speculation that perhaps no damage occurred at all. The facts that the extent of damage can't be disclosed publicly -- or even known right away -- doesn't excuse downplaying the scandal; rather, it's precisely the reason why you just don't do something like that. The Bush Administration committed an odious crime against national security in the name of politics, and that's simply unforgivable.

Daniel Drezner has more on the recent Times and Post stories. Tom Maguire also remains an excellent source of commentary from the principled conservative wing.

Mark Kleiman has some bad news for those hoping the Bush Administration will get off on a technicality, thoughts here and here on a special prosecutor, notes that the White House appears to be conducting this investigation in a manner departing from its own established procedures, and an excellent analysis of the White House cover story.

CalPundit points to this excellent annotated timeline of events in the plame scandal, and wonders if there can possibly an innocent explanation for the mess. Kevin Drum agrees with Josh Marshall's assessment that the Post has been the go-to source for the Plame scandal, but notes that it isn't just the Times that seems to have dropped the ball.

John Dean offers this FindLaw column pointing out that simply because Plame's cover had already been blown doesn't excuse Karl Rove from following up wit has round of calls pushing the story to reporters.
Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan has chosen his words carefully in denying that anyone at the White House was involved with the leak. To remain credible, a press secretary cannot be caught in either a lie, or a serious misstatement based on ignorance.

McClellan's response reminded me of the Nixon Administration. Nixon's press secretary, Ron Zeigler, took the line that no one presently employed in his administration was involved in the Watergate break-in. That was technically correct, but only technically.

It is entirely possible that no one at the Bush "White House" or on the President's personal staff, was involved in the initial leak to Novak. It could have been someone at the National Security Council, which is related to the Bush White House but not part of it.

In fact, Novak wrote in one of his later columns, that the leak came from a person who was "no partisan gunslinger." That sounds like an NSC staffer to me. And as Newsweek also reported (you can count on Michael Isikoff to dig this stuff out), Valerie Plame's CIA identity was likely known to senior intelligence people on the NSC staff, for apparently one of them had worked with Ms. Plame at the CIA.

But even if the White House was not initially involved with the leak, it has exploited it. As a result, it may have opened itself to additional criminal charges under the federal conspiracy statute.

...If Newsweek is correct that Karl Rove declared Valerie Plame Wilson "fair game," then he should make sure he's got a good criminal lawyer, for he made need one. I've only suggested the most obvious criminal statute that might come into play for those who exploit the leak of a CIA asset's identity. There are others.


Seriously, folks...the White House's behavior with regard to the Plame scandal makes it really hard to credit any innocent scenario, and the President's apologists should stop bending over backward to make something up. Clearly, the White House made a strong effort to publicize Plame's CIA role in order to discredit her husband's broadside against the bogus Niger uranium story, and has shown no interest at all in discovering who blew her cover in the first place. That sorry fact is as much a scandal as the original leak, and it's truly mystifying how any principled American can tolerate it, much less condone it.

Unfortunately, there are some who do condone it and stand ready to defend it with obfuscation and distortion, as David Corn reports (along with some justified crowing at being among the first to break the story back in July) on his encounter with the GOP spin machine.
The issue is not who’s screaming about the leak but who did it. Yet if Portman and the Republicans can succeed in presenting the controversy as another one of those same-old bitter face-offs between D’s and R’s — creating a moral equivalency between the leakers and the complainants — they win. Their aim is to exploit the public’s (justifiable) cynicism toward Washington and to battle to an it’s-all-politics draw. This is a good strategy — as long as no indictments materialize.

How did I respond to these sly comments? I didn’t. Time was up. The congressman had been granted the first word and the last. And I am sure to many viewers it appeared as if the Wilson-leak scandal was just the latest fodder for the never-ending food fight in Washington. With his disingenuous rhetoric, Portman had gained the advantage.

For shame, Representative Rob Portman (R-OH). And shame on the so-called "journalist" who allowed herself to be lied to and provided the liar with an uncritical public forum.





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