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Rove's Backers Use 'CounterSpy Defense'

By Robert Parry
July 26, 2005

In defending White House political adviser Karl Rove, American conservatives have adopted an argument used by U.S. leftists three decades ago to rebut accusations that CounterSpy magazine's naming of CIA station chief Richard Welch in Greece contributed to his murder.

The argument – used then to defend CounterSpy and now to protect Rove for outing CIA officer Valerie Plame – was that the covers for the two CIA officers had previously been blown and that the CIA hadn’t done enough to maintain the secrecy.

Over the past two weeks, following revelations that Rove discussed Plame’s CIA role with journalists in 2003, right-wing commentators have asserted that no crime was committed because Plame’s CIA identity was “common knowledge” to some of her friends and because her cover had already been breached.

For instance, an editorial in the right-wing Washington Times asserted that Plame’s identity “was compromised twice before her name appeared” in  Robert Novak’s column of July 14, 2003.

“Mrs. Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA officer was first disclosed to Russia in the mid-1990s by a Moscow spy,” the Times said. “In a second compromise, officials said a more recent inadvertent disclosure resulted in references to Mrs. Plame in confidential documents sent by the CIA to the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana. … Cubans read the classified material and learned the secrets contained in them, the officials said.” [Washington Times editorial, July 19, 2005.]

Denouncing Agee                                                                                       

In the mid-1970s, a similar debate raged over CounterSpy, a magazine associated with renegade CIA officer Phil Agee, for listing Welch’s name before the CIA station chief was gunned down in Athens in 1975.

Though U.S. officials, including then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush, blamed CounterSpy for contributing to Welch's death, the magazine’s defenders noted that Welch had been previously fingered as a CIA officer by a European publication and that the CIA had carelessly assigned him a house previously used by CIA station chiefs.

But the CounterSpy defense didn’t stop Congress from citing the Welch assassination as the principal justification for passing a law in 1982 making the willful identification of a CIA officer a criminal offense.

That law is now at the center of the investigation into whether officials in George W. Bush’s administration committed a crime by disclosing Plame’s identity as retaliation for her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, writing that Bush had “twisted” intelligence in hyping Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

Ironically, conservatives – who staunchly supported the 1982 law and denounced Agee as a traitor – are now claiming the law should not apply to Rove. In doing so, they are citing some of the same reasons that caused liberals to oppose the law’s enactment as a response to the outing of Welch.

But the flaw in both the CounterSpy and Rove defenses is that just because information might have reached a limited number of unauthorized people doesn’t mean that everyone who might want to harm a CIA officer knows the facts. For instance, there’s no evidence that Moscow or Havana shared what they might have known about Plame with al-Qaeda or other Islamic terrorists.

Yet by leaking the Plame information to Novak, Bush administration officials exposed to al-Qaeda and its allies not only a CIA officer who was involved in tracking weapons of mass destruction, but also overseas agents who may have assisted Plame in her work and the cover company she used while spying abroad.

Similarly, the Greek assassins who gunned down Welch may or may not have known about the earlier leak of his name or about the use of his residence by previous CIA station chiefs. It’s also unclear if the terrorists read CounterSpy.

But by listing Welch’s name, CounterSpy increased the danger to the CIA station chief – just as Rove and other Bush administration officials heightened risks for Plame and anyone who assisted her in tracking WMD shipments.

A ‘Secret’ Memo

In July 2003, Bush administration officials also had reason to know that Plame was still an undercover agent, since the paragraph in a State Department memo that mentioned her identity and her marriage to Wilson was marked “S” for secret, according to press reports. [Washington Post, July 21, 2005]

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is heading the leak investigation, has reportedly focused on the memo, which was carried aboard Air Force One on July 7, 2003, a day after Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed article criticizing Bush’s assertions that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger.

A day later, on July 8, right-wing columnist Robert Novak told Rove that he (Novak) had heard that Plame had sent Wilson on the mission to Niger, according to a lawyer who has spoken to several news organizations. The lawyer said Rove responded, “I heard that, too.” [Washington Post, July 17, 2005]

Although the administration has never spelled out why it considered Plame’s alleged role in sending her husband on the Niger mission so significant, the point apparently was to raise doubts about Wilson’s manhood, as a guy who needed his wife’s help to get a job.

The more salient point would seem to be that Wilson’s judgment that Iraq was not seeking yellowcake uranium turned out to be correct. Even by July 2003, U.S. weapons inspectors were discovering that pre-invasion claims about Iraq’s WMD stockpiles and a nuclear weapons program weren’t checking out.

On July 11, 2003, CIA Director George Tenet apologized for not keeping the yellowcake reference out of the State of the Union speech. “This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches,” Tenet said.

Despite that admission, the Bush administration continued its behind-the-scenes assault on Wilson and his credibility. Time correspondent Matthew Cooper interviewed Rove about Wilson on the same day as Tenet’s apology and Rove disclosed that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA on WMD issues.

According to an internal Time e-mail, Cooper informed his editor that Rove offered a “big warning” not to “get too far out on Wilson” and that “KR said” the Niger trip was authorized by “wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency (CIA) on wmd issues.” [Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]

‘Said Too Much’

In a little-noticed part of Cooper’s account, Rove also revealed that he was aware of the classified nature of the information surrounding Wilson’s trip.

Cooper said his notes reveal that after discussing Wilson’s CIA wife, Rove said “material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson’s mission and his findings.” In ending the conversation, Rove said, “I’ve already said too much,” according to Cooper. [Time, July 25, 2005, issue]

The next day, July 12, 2003, Cooper said he received confirmation of Rove’s information about the CIA employment of Wilson’s wife from Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

In the same time period, White House officials reportedly were circulating the information about Plame to other reporters. “A senior administration official flagged the role of Wilson’s wife, almost in passing, to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus,” the Post reported in a later chronology of the case.

On July 14, 2003, Novak’s column made public the secret about Plame’s CIA identity. Novak also wrote that “two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate” the yellowcake report.

Although the CIA soon submitted a criminal referral to the Justice Department about the leaking of Plame’s name, the case languished until December 2003 when U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald was appointed as a special prosecutor. The case gained new momentum in July 2005 with the disclosure of Rove’s role in identifying Plame.

Yet almost as stunning as this month’s revelations about Rove has been the lock-step reaction from right-wing commentators – as well as the Republican National Committee – as they lined up to defend Rove and continue trashing Wilson.

A major point in Rove’s defense has been that Plame was based at CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., supposedly making her CIA employment “common knowledge” around Washington. The reasoning seems to be that identities of home-based CIA officers are so readily known in Washington that no one can blame Rove for giving up Plame’s identity.

This pro-Rove argument has a jaded worldliness popular with TV pundits who are fond of quipping that “there are no secrets in Washington” – except, of course, the many that they don’t know about.

In the Plame case, Rove’s defenders are suggesting that the identities of CIA officers are everyday fodder for Washington cocktail parties, after which journalists supposedly rush back to the office to spice up their stories with “secret” CIA identities.

But that just isn’t true. As a journalist who has covered intelligence issues for a quarter century, I have never encountered that kind of cavalier attitude toward the naming of CIA officers. In interviews and conversations that I’ve had even with government officials I’ve known for years, they steer clear of naming CIA personnel they work with

The rule of thumb is to assume that a CIA officer’s name is a national security secret unless you specifically know otherwise. At the CIA, public identities are mostly limited to employees in the press office and senior agency officials, such as the director and deputy directors.

Not only do most government officials take pains to protect the identities of CIA employees, but so do most journalists who may learn the names of CIA officers while working on articles. CIA identities are only used in stories if the countervailing principle of the public’s right to know is so compelling that use of the name can’t be avoided.

Novak’s column was an aberration from these longstanding Washington ground rules. Plus, the violation was striking because the justification for disclosing Plame was so weak – that she may have recommended her husband for the trip to Niger.

Since Wilson was otherwise qualified for the assignment and since his conclusion about the bogus Niger claims turned out to be true, it’s never been entirely clear why the White House considered his wife’s role in the trip important enough to override the mandate for protecting the identity of CIA officers.

It’s also still a mystery why the discrete secret of Plame’s identity would have been shared with political operative Rove – and by whom.

Wilson concluded that the outing of his wife was an act of retaliation – and there is evidence to support that suspicion. In September 2003, a senior White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column appeared. The official said the disclosures about Plame were “purely and simply out of revenge.”

(The myth that Plame was not a clandestine officer at the time of Novak’s column gained traction because of a mistaken report on July 15, 2005, by the Associated Press, which misinterpreted a comment that Wilson made during a CNN interview. The AP took Wilson’s comment that “my wife was not a clandestine officer the day that Bob Novak blew her identity” to mean that she had already left the covert world, when Wilson actually meant that Novak’s column ended her covert career. AP ran a correction but conservatives widely circulated the erroneous report.)

Flip-Flop

Another stunning part of the Rove defense has been how quickly right-wing commentators have flip-flopped from their traditional hard-line stance decrying the unauthorized disclosure of national security secrets.

For instance, six months ago, Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of the Washington Times, suggested prosecuting New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh on espionage charges (carrying a possible death penalty) for disclosing secret U.S. military reconnaissance operations inside Iran.

In a Jan. 19, 2005, column entitled “Espionage by any other name,” Blankley argued that Hersh had given sensitive secrets to the enemy by describing U.S. preparations for war with Iran. Blankley cited the precedent of the government using the Espionage Act to convict Navy analyst Samuel Morison for selling photos of a Soviet ship to a Jane’s military publication in the mid-1980s.

Yet Hersh’s article had an obvious importance to a national public debate about whether the Iraq War should be extended to Iran. Hersh’s New Yorker article was alerting the American people to how advanced the war planning already was.

No similar argument could be made about an overriding need for the public to know the identity of Valerie Plame. Yet, the Washington Times – along with other conservative news outlets – decried the Hersh leak while defending the Rove-Novak leak.

There is also irony in the Washington Times making pronouncements about espionage when it has been kept afloat since 1982 with secret financing from Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who was unmasked in a 1978 congressional investigation as a covert agent of the South Korean government trying to penetrate U.S. media and politics.

[For more on Moon’s espionage role – and his ties to the Bush family – see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

But the right-wing campaign to continue denigrating Joe Wilson carries another troubling message: that some Washington conservatives care less about genuine national security than they do about protecting their friends and maintaining their political dominance.


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

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