Rather than fire Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt or at least apologize for all the newspaper’s past misstatements about former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame, the Post instead has published a rehash of the lies and distortions about the couple.

This new attack is contained in a column by right-wing pundit Robert D. Novak, who originally blew Plame’s CIA cover in July 2003 and has sought to add insult to the injury ever since. Some of Novak’s past falsehoods about Wilson/Plame also have found their way into Post editorials, apparently without benefit of fact-checking.

In the new March 22 column, Novak can’t seem to let go of a favorite right-wing myth – that Plame wasn’t a "covert" CIA officer overseeing a sensitive network of spies informing the United States about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

That right-wing myth – insisting that she wasn’t “covert” – was exploded at a March 16 hearing of the House Oversight Committee when Chairman Henry Waxman read a statement approved by CIA Director Michael Hayden referring to Plame’s former status as “covert,” “undercover” and “classified.”

Hayden didn’t want to divulge details about Plame’s sensitive work but did confirm that she had served overseas. “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.”

In his column, Novak reports that Hayden’s statement shocked Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a hard-line Bush loyalist who had chaired the House Intelligence Committee when the Republicans were in control.

According to Novak, Hoekstra called Hayden, who reaffirmed the statement that Plame indeed had been “covert.” But Novak then resumes the right-wing quibbling about whether Plame would qualify as “covert” under the special definition of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

This legal technicality apparently was so important to the Post’s editors that they headlined the article, “Was She Covert?” But Novak’s column, like an earlier Post Outlook article by right-wing legal expert Victoria Toensing, gums up how the law actually defines a “covert” agent who qualifies for special legal protection from exposure.

Toensing, who presents herself as one of the law’s authors, has said a “covert” agent must be “stationed” abroad during the previous five years. In her testimony before the House Oversight Committee, she slipped in another definitional word, saying that “the person is supposed to reside outside the United States.”

In his column, Novak reverts back to Toensing’s earlier word “stationed.” However, for all the interest in this legal technicality of whether Plame was “covert” under the narrow provisions of the 1982 law, Novak, Toensing and the Post’s editors have shied away from actually quoting from the law.

Covert or Not?

There appears to be a reason for the lack of precision and curiosity about how “covert” is defined. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 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.”

The verb is “served” – not “stationed” or “resided” – a modest but significant difference that would appear to alter the determination of whether the law would apply to someone like Plame, who was based in the United States but who testified that she had undertaken covert missions abroad in the previous five years.

Beyond playing games with the definitions, however, Toensing, Novak and the Post editors are obscuring the larger issue of the damage that can be done by blowing a CIA agent’s cover – and putting in jeopardy the lives of people who have supplied information to the CIA and who clearly do live overseas.

If you adopted the Toensing-Novak language, it would be okay, too, to divulge the covert identity of a Special Forces soldier who was “stationed” at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and who “resided” in Fayetteville but risked his life by conducting clandestine counter-terrorism missions in the Middle East.

The decision to insert a different word in the law’s definition is what lawyers would call “probative” in assessing whether Toensing and Novak are intentionally lying. As someone who was involved in drafting the law, Toensing obviously would know that the actual term used in the law was “served,” but she opted to replace it with other words.

Novak has been caught lying about Wilson/Plame before. For instance, in an Aug. 1, 2005, column also published in the Post, Novak claimed that “the Senate [intelligence] committee reported that much of what he [Wilson] said ‘had no basis in fact.’”

However, the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004 – although then controlled by the Republicans – did not conclude that Wilson’s statements about Iraqi intelligence “had no basis in fact.” That was a phrase that Novak culled from the “additional views” of three right-wing Republican senators – Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch and Christopher Bond.

The full committee had refused to accept that opinion from Roberts, Bond and Hatch – yet Novak left the false impression that the phrase was part of what he called “a unanimous Senate intelligence committee report.”

Novak’s misleading claim proved so effective that Hiatt and his editorial writers adopted the falsehood as one of their own. In a March 7, 2007, editorial, the Post again trashed Wilson for his statements about Bush’s “twisted” WMD intelligence, asserting that “a bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee subsequently established that all of these claims were false.”

Work at Headquarters

In the March 22 column, Novak also resurrects other silly arguments that have circulated widely on the Right, such as the assumption that if CIA employees work at headquarters in Langley, Virginian, they must be public.

As Post editors and Novak certainly know, many CIA employees who work at Langley and at other CIA facilities around Washington are still covert. It is ludicrous – if not highly offensive – for the Post to run Novak’s rhetorical question: “How could she be covert if, in public view, she drove to work each day at Langley?”

Novak adds other questions that he feels should have been addressed at Waxman’s hearing, such as “What about testimony to the FBI that her CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington?”

But Novak doesn’t bother to identify who gave that testimony, when the obvious point would be that many people who were under investigation for revealing Plame’s identity had a vested interest in claiming her identity was widely known.

One such witness was Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted of perjury for his claim to federal investigators that he had picked up the news of Plame’s identity from NBC bureau chief Tim Russert.

The Post’s editors also let Novak revive other canards about Wilson that have long since been discredited and for which Novak has presented zero proof.

For instance, Novak writes that “claims of a White House plot [to punish Wilson by exposing his wife] became so discredited that Wilson was cut out of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign by the summer of 2004.”

What Novak is doing here is recycling a baseless report from Talon News’ former White House correspondent Jeff Gannon, whose real name was James Guckert. On July 27, 2004, a Talon News story under Gannon’s byline had reported that Wilson “has apparently been jettisoned from the Kerry campaign.”

The article based its assumption on the fact that “all traces” of Wilson “had disappeared from the Kerry Web site.” The Talon News article reported that “Wilson had appeared on a Web site www.restorehonesty.com where he restated his criticism of the Bush administration. The link now goes directly to the main page of www.johnkerry.com and no reference to Wilson can be found on the entire site.”

That was the extent of Gannon/Guckert’s “proof.”

Kerry Denial

But Peter Daou, who headed the Kerry campaign’s online rapid response, told me that the disappearance of Wilson’s link – along with many other Web pages – resulted from a redesign of Kerry’s Web site at the start of the general election campaign, not a repudiation of Wilson.

“I wasn’t aware of any directive from senior Kerry staff to ‘discard’ Joe Wilson or do anything to Joe Wilson for that matter,” said Daou. “It just got lost in the redesign of the Web site, as did dozens and dozens of other pages.”

Gannon/Guckert, who wrote frequently about the Wilson-Plame case in 2003-2004, came under suspicion as a covert Republican operative in January 2005 when he put a question to Bush at a presidential news conference that contained a false assertion about Democrats and prompted concerns that Gannon/Guckert was a plant.

Later, liberal Web sites discovered that Gannon was a pseudonym for Guckert, who had posted nude photos of himself on gay-male escort sites. It also turned out that Talon News was owned by GOPUSA, whose president Robert Eberle was a prominent Texas Republican activist.

As a controversy built over the Bush administration paying for favorable news stories, Gannon/Guckert resigned from Talon News and its Web site effectively shut down. But his spurious claim about Wilson has now resurfaced in the Novak’s column.

Novak finishes up his column by spinning new conspiracy theories implicating Democrats and insinuating that CIA Director Hayden deserves to be next in line for White House retaliation.

Hayden’s approval of Waxman’s statement about Plame’s covert status “confirmed Republican suspicions that Hayden is too close to Democrats,” Novak wrote. “When Hayden’s role was pointed out to one of the President’s most important aides, there was no response.”

Novak, it appears, has gone from acting as Bush’s water carrier to becoming an instigator for reprisals against public officials who are not sufficiently “loyal Bushies.”

Hiatt and his colleagues on the Washington Post editorial page apparently see nothing wrong in conveying these thinly veiled threats of reprisals to the broader Washington community.

[For some earlier articles about the Post's anti-Wilson/Plame bias, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Shame on the Post’s Editorial Page,” “Smearing Joe Wilson Again,” “Shame of the WPost, Again,” and "Plame-gate: Time to Fire WPost's Hiatt."]

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 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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