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Plame-gate: Time to Fire WPost's Hiatt

By Robert Parry
March 17, 2007

The testimony of Valerie Plame destroyed some of the long-standing myths about her outing as a covert CIA officer that have been circulated for more than three years by George W. Bush’s apologists, including Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Indeed, Hiatt and his editorial page cohorts have made trashing Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, and mocking the seriousness of Plame’s exposure almost a regular feature, recycling many long-discredited White House talking points, including an attempt to question whether Plame was in fact “covert.”

After the March 16 hearing before Rep. Henry Waxman’s House Oversight Committee, those pro-Bush falsehoods stand in even starker disrepute – as should the reputation of the Post’s editorial page, which has never quite reconciled itself to how thoroughly it fell for Bush’s Iraq War deceptions.

Based on testimony before Waxman’s committee, it also now is clear that while the Post was busy defending the Bush administration on the Plame affair, the White House was conducting a systematic cover-up of its role in the leak.

Though Bush declared in September 2003 that he was determined to get to the bottom of who blew Plame’s cover, it was revealed at the March 16 hearing that the White House never even undertook an administrative review to assess responsibility for the leak.

James Knodell, the hapless director of the White House security office, was forced to concede that no internal security investigation was performed; no security clearances were suspended or revoked; no punishment of any kind was meted out to White House political adviser Karl Rove who is now known to have revealed Plame’s classified identity to at least two reporters.

Knodell, whose job includes assessing Executive Branch security breaches, said that what he knew about the Plame case was “through the press.”

Watergate Betrayal

It may strike some readers as shocking that the Washington Post, which built its reputation more than three decades ago by unraveling Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, would now be a party to another White House cover-up. But that would not come as a surprise to anyone who has read the Post’s editorial pages over the past six years.

If Washington were a place where there was any meaningful accountability, editorial page editor Hiatt would have been fired long ago for his work lining up the misguided “inside-the-Beltway” consensus behind invading Iraq. Instead he remains one of the capital’s most influential journalists.

While one might expect that someone as disastrously wrong on the Iraq War as Hiatt was would at least show some humility before carrying more water for the White House, you’d be wrong again. Hiatt and his editorial page have managed to be as brazenly inaccurate about the Plame case as they were about Iraq’s WMD.

How off target became apparent at the opening of the House Oversight Committee hearing when Waxman read a statement that had been approved by CIA Director Michael Hayden. The statement described Plame’s former status at the CIA as “covert,” “undercover” and “classified.”

“Ms. Wilson worked on the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA,” Waxman’s statement said, adding that her work dealt with “prevention of development and use of WMD against the United States.”

Though the CIA still restricts what details can be divulged about Plame’s assignments, both Waxman’s statement and Plame’s testimony indicated that she had served overseas and that – after her identity was disclosed to reporters by the Bush administration in June-July 2003 – she could no longer fulfill her duties.

Plame also testified that she had undertaken overseas assignments in the five years before she was outed, meaning that even the narrow provisions of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 would have been met in her case.

That law makes it a crime to willfully disclose the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer if the identity is classified and the person “has within the last five years served outside the United States.”

Covert or Not Covert

The Post editorial page and its opinion sections have made a big deal out of how Plame supposedly wasn’t “covert” because she apparently hadn’t been “stationed” abroad in the past five years or because her “covert” status hadn’t been publicly proven.

For instance, on Feb. 18, 2007, as jurors were about to begin deliberations on whether Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff I. Lewis Libby committed perjury and obstruction of justice by lying about his role in leaking Plame’s identity, the Post ran a prominent Outlook article by right-wing legal expert Victoria Toensing.

Toensing, who had been buzzing around the TV pundit shows decrying Libby’s prosecution, wrote that “Plame was not covert. She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years of the date of Novak’s column.”

Though it might not have been clear to a casual reader, Toensing was hanging her claim about Plame not being “covert” on a contention that Plame didn’t meet the coverage standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Toensing’s claim was legalistic at best since it obscured the larger point that Plame was working undercover in a classified CIA position and was running agents abroad whose safety would be put at risk by an unauthorized disclosure of Plame’s identity.

But Toensing, who promotes herself as an author of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, wasn’t even right about the legal details. The law doesn’t require that a CIA officer be “stationed” abroad in the preceding five years; it simply refers to an officer who “has served within the last five years outside the United States.”

That would cover someone who – while based in the United States – went abroad on official CIA business, as Plame testified that she did.

Toensing, who appeared as a Republican witness at the March 16 congressional hearing, was asked about her bald assertion that “Plame was not covert.”

“Not under the law,” Toensing responded. “I’m giving you the legal interpretation under the law and I helped draft the law. The person is supposed to reside outside the United States.”

But that’s not what the law says, either. It says “served” abroad, not “reside.”

When asked whether she had spoken to the CIA or Plame about Plame’s covert status, Toensing said, “I didn’t talk to Ms. Plame or the CIA. I can just tell you what’s required under the law. They can call anybody anything they want to do in the halls” of the CIA.

In other words, Toensing had no idea about the facts of the matter; she didn’t know how often Plame might have traveled abroad in the five years before her exposure; Toensing didn’t even get the language of the statute correct.

Quibbling Kook

At the hearing, Toensing was reduced to looking like a quibbling kook who missed the forest of damage – done to U.S. national security, to Plame and possibly to the lives of foreign agents – for the trees of how a definition in a law was phrased, and then getting that wrong, too.

After watching Toensing’s bizarre testimony, one might wonder why the Post would have granted her space on the widely read Outlook section’s front page to issue what she called “indictments” of Joe Wilson, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and others who had played a role in exposing the White House hand behind the Plame leak.

One might chalk it up to bending over backwards to give the Right a chance to get one more shot in at the Plame-Wilson family, perhaps some weird sense of “balance.” But Toensing’s attack lines also matched the Washington Post's editorial positions which have consistently hammered Wilson and made light of White House wrongdoing in the case.

On March 7, after Libby’s conviction on four felony counts, the Post’s lead editorial continued its long practice of manufacturing a false history of the case.

The real history is now well documented: In 2003, an arrogant administration sought to damage a critic, Wilson, who had offended Vice President Cheney by accusing the White House of having "twisted" Iraq War intelligence. The Cheney-led counterattack against Wilson ended up exposing Wilson’s CIA wife. Then, recognizing the potential criminality – not to mention the political dangers – the White House launched a cover-up.

But the Post’s editorial page, which had swallowed Bush’s WMD lies hook, line and sinker in 2002-03, still couldn’t countenance someone who was right while so many super-smart Post editors and executives were wrong. So after the Libby verdict, they joined again in mocking Wilson, saying he “will be remembered as a blowhard.”

“Mr. Wilson was embraced by many because he was early in publicly charging that the Bush administration had ‘twisted,’ if not invented, facts in making the case for war against Iraq,” the Post editorial said. “He claimed to have debunked evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger; suggested that he had been dispatched by Mr. Cheney to look into the matter; and alleged that his report had circulated at the highest levels of the administration.

“A bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee subsequently established that all of these claims were false – and that Mr. Wilson was recommended for the Niger trip by Ms. Plame, his wife. When this fact, along with Ms. Plame’s name, was disclosed in a column by Robert D. Novak, Mr. Wilson advanced yet another sensational charge: that his wife was a covert CIA operative and that senior White House officials had orchestrated the leak of her name to destroy her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson. …

“The [Libby] trial has provided convincing evidence that there was no conspiracy to punish Mr. Wilson by leaking Ms. Plame’s identity – and no evidence that she was, in fact, covert.” [Washington Post, March 7, 2007]

Editorial Lies

But everything in this Post attack on Wilson was either a gross distortion or a lie, often parroting long-discredited White House talking points.

Contrary to the Post’s account, Wilson did debunk suspicions that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. He was dispatched by the CIA because of questions asked by Cheney. (Wilson never said Cheney personally sent him.) His information did reach the highest levels of the administration, explaining why the CIA kept trying to delete references to the Niger claims from speeches.

The full Senate Intelligence Committee did not conclude that “all [Wilson’s] claims were false.” That assertion was rejected by the full committee and then inserted into “additional views” of three right-wing Republicans – Sens. Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch and Christopher Bond – who carried the White House’s water in claiming that Wilson’s statements “had no basis in fact.”

As for the CIA selection of Wilson, the Post editorial-page editors knew that Wilson was chosen by senior CIA officials in the office of counter-proliferation – not by Valerie Plame, who offered a detailed account of her minor role in that recruitment during her March 16 testimony.

The Post also knew that Wilson was well qualified for the assignment since he had served in embassies in Iraq and Niger. He also took on this task pro bono, with the CIA only paying for his expenses.

Plus, Wilson was right again when he alleged that the White House was punishing him for his Iraq War criticism. Indeed, the Washington Post’s own reporters have described this reality in the news pages.

On Sept. 28, 2003, a Post news article reported that a White House official disclosed that the administration had informed at least six reporters about Plame and did so “purely and simply out of revenge” against Wilson.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made the same point in a court filing in the Libby case, stating that the investigation had uncovered a “concerted” effort by the White House to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson because of his criticism of the administration. Hiatt can look it up. It was on the Post's front page. [Washington Post, April 9, 2006]

In the March 7 editorial, Hiatt apparently was still hanging his hat on Toensing’s narrow concept of what a “covert” officer is – despite the fact that Toensing’s analysis relied on word substitutions for definitions in the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

As for the lack of evidence at the Libby trial about Plame’s covert status, the Post editorial leaves out the context: Libby’s defense attorneys argued against admission of that evidence on the grounds that it would prejudice the jury and the judge ruled Plame’s covert status to be largely irrelevant to a case narrowly constructed about Libby’s lying.

The Post’s March 7 editorial also was part of a long pattern of deception by Hiatt and his editorial team when writing about the Iraq War. They have let their neoconservative ideology blind them to facts, reason and fairness. [See, for instance, see’s “Shame on the Post’s Editorial Page,” “Smearing Joe Wilson Again” and “Shame of the WPost, Again.”]

In a normal world, a newspaper would praise Joe Wilson for his dedication and patriotism – both for undertaking the CIA mission and blowing the whistle on the President’s abuse of intelligence to lead the nation to war.

A newspaper also might be expected to demand stern accountability from the Bush administration for not only damaging national security by exposing Valerie Plame’s identity but for then misleading the public and mounting a cover-up of the facts.

To this day – closing in on four years since the White House started its anti-Wilson campaign – political adviser Karl Rove retains his security clearance and neither Bush nor Cheney have issued an apology to the Wilson-Plame family or to the country for damaging an important national security operation.

But the Post editorial board can’t seem to get past its own gullibility in buying into the administration’s bogus WMD claims in 2002-03. Rather than apologize for enabling Bush and Cheney to lead the nation into a disastrous war, Hiatt and his boss, Washington Post publisher Donald Graham, apparently think they can ignore their responsibility to the readers and to the nation.

That immunity – and hubris – should end with, at minimum, the firing of Fred Hiatt.

[For a special report on the Libby case, see “Zeroing in on Cheney-Bush.”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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