an outsider to Washington, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald appears
to have misunderstood the finer points of how national security
classifications work when a secret is as discrete – and sensitive – as
the identity of an undercover CIA officer.
In his five-count indictment of Vice President Dick
Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, prosecutor Fitzgerald leaves the
false impression that it was all right for White House officials with
security clearances to be discussing the identity of CIA officer Valerie
Plame, a counter-proliferation official under deep cover.
Under the rules of classification, however, to see
such secrets an official must not only have a top-secret clearance but
also special code-word clearance that grants access to a specific
compartment governed by strict need-to-know requirements.
In both the Libby indictment and a hour-long press
conference on Oct. 28, Fitzgerald showed no indication he understood how
extraordinary it was for White House officials to be bandying about the
name of a covert CIA officer based on the flimsy rationale that she was
married to an ex-diplomat who had been sent on a fact-finding trip to
Fitzgerald, who is the U.S. Attorney in Chicago,
appears to have bought into the notion that government officials had a
right to discuss Plame’s covert status among themselves as long as they
didn’t pass the secret on to journalists. Then Fitzgerald didn’t even
seek punishment for that, limiting his criminal case to Libby’s lying
about how and when he learned of Plame’s identity.
But to veterans of U.S. intelligence, one of the
ugliest parts of Plame’s outing was the cavalier manner in which White
House officials tossed around references to her CIA job to undercut her
husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing George W.
Bush’s case for war with Iraq.
Within the U.S. government, few secrets are more
sensitive than the identity of a CIA officer under “non-official cover,”
or NOC, meaning the agent operates outside government protection, such
as posing as a business executive as Plame did. Lacking diplomatic
cover, a NOC faces a far greater chance of execution if caught spying.
“The CIA is obsessive about protecting its NOCs,”
one angry former senior U.S. official told me after Libby was charged
only with perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice. “There’s
almost nothing they care about more.”
Fitzgerald did leave open the possibility there
might be more charges against other officials but said he had completed
the “substantial bulk” of his investigation. He also discouraged
speculation that major new revelations were ahead and even skirted
questions about whether an underlying crime had occurred in leaking
Some Americans, especially Iraq War critics, were
deflated by Fitzgerald’s insistence that he would prosecute only clearly
defined crimes stemming from the Plame case, not venture into a fuller
narrative about the Bush administration’s justifications for war.
Administration officials are not entirely out of
hot water, however, because new disclosures could emerge from Libby’s
trial or from additional indictments that Fitzgerald might seek before
he wraps up his investigation. According to press accounts, Bush’s top
political adviser Karl Rove remains under investigation for his role in
leaking Plame’s identity to journalists.
In one of the most mysterious revelations about
Fitzgerald’s hectic activities on Oct. 28, the day of the Libby
indictment, was the New York Times report that the special prosecutor
made an unexplained visit to the office of James Sharp, President Bush’s
personal lawyer. [NYT, Oct. 29, 2005]
The Wilson-Plame case goes back to 2002 when Vice
President Cheney expressed interest in a dubious report about Iraq
seeking processed uranium from Africa. In response, CIA officials who
worked with Plame decided to send Wilson to Niger to check out the
Wilson, who had served as a diplomat in both Iraq
and Africa, returned with the conclusion that the reports were most
likely untrue. (The Niger allegations were later debunked by U.N.
However, in the State of Union address in January
2003, Bush cited the Niger allegations as part of his rationale for war
with Iraq. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq two months later, but U.S.
forces failed to discover any stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction
or evidence of an active Iraqi nuclear program.
By spring 2003, Wilson began talking privately to
journalists about his Niger findings and criticizing the administration
for hyping the WMD intelligence. Behind the scenes, the White House
began to hit back, collecting information about Wilson and his trip.
Vice President Cheney and other White House
officials soon learned that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA on
counter-proliferation issues and had a minor hand in arranging Wilson’s
trip to Africa.
White House officials then began what appears to
have been an organized campaign to leak the identity of Wilson’s wife,
presumably to suggest that nepotism was involved in the Niger trip or to
cast doubt on Wilson’s manliness.
The anti-Wilson campaign gained momentum after he
penned an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, accusing
the administration of having “twisted” the WMD intelligence, including
the Niger allegations, to justify war with Iraq.
Eight days later, on July 14, 2003, right-wing
pundit Robert Novak outed Plame in a column that cited two
administration sources describing Plame as a “CIA operative.”
Privately, some administration officials
acknowledged that the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against
Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge
Bush on the WMD intelligence.
In September 2003, a White House official told the
Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about
Plame before Novak’s column. The official said the disclosure was
“purely and simply out of revenge.”
In indicting Libby on five counts of making false
statements, perjury and obstructing justice, Fitzgerald added a few new
details to the overall story and confirmed some facts that had appeared
in press accounts.
The indictment alleged that Libby – who also served
as a national security aide to President Bush – learned of Plame’s
identity from a CIA official and from Vice President Cheney, before
passing the information to at least two journalists, New York Times
reporter Judith Miller and Time correspondent Matthew Cooper.
When the leak investigation began, Libby concocted
a false tale, claiming that he had first learned of Plame’s identity
from NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert and had simply recycled
the rumor to reporters, the indictment said. In reality, the indictment
said, Plame never came up in the Russert-Libby conversation.
While denouncing Libby’s alleged deceptions as a
serious crime, Fitzgerald splashed cold water on the notion that his
investigation might unravel a larger government conspiracy into how not
only Plame was exposed but also the company that provided her cover and
possibly other agents who assisted her in tracking down sources of WMD.
The limited scope of the Libby indictment buoyed
some conservatives, including former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, who
pounced on its narrow construction as a sign of White House vindication.
Meanwhile, other Republicans made clear that while
they would spare Fitzgerald from a public-relations counter-offensive,
they would continue their long-running campaign to disparage Wilson.
Because of his criticism of Bush’s use of WMD
intelligence, Wilson – who is now just a private citizen – has become a
bete noire for Republicans, on par with their hatred for the
French, the United Nations or filmmaker Michael Moore.
Three months ago, the Republican National Committee
even posted an article entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies
and Misstatements,” which itself used glaring inaccuracies and
misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see
Recycles Gannon on ‘Plame-gate.’”]
However, what upsets some Americans most about
Fitzgerald’s narrow indictment of Libby is that it seems to have let
other participants in the Plame leak off the hook.
The larger conspiracy – to punish an Iraq War
critic for telling the truth about false intelligence used to take the
United States to war – will go unpunished and unexplained, at least for
In street terms, it looks a lot like the White
House got a walk.