A White House Smear

Posted 07/16/2003 @ 4:13pm
A White House Smear-David Corn
Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security–and break the law–in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?

It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.

In a recent column on Nigergate, Novak examined the role of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV in the affair. Two weeks ago, Wilson went public, writing in The New York Times and telling The Washington Post about the trip he took to Niger in February 2002–at the request of the CIA–to check out allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium for a nuclear weapons program from Niger. Wilson was a good pick for the job. He had been a State Department officer there in the mid-1970s. He was ambassador to Gabon in the early 1990s. And in 1997 and 1998, he was the senior director for Africa at the National Security Council and in that capacity spent a lot of time dealing with the Niger government. Wilson was also the last acting US ambassador in Iraq before the Gulf War, a military action he supported. In that post, he helped evacuate thousands of foreigners from Kuwait, worked to get over 120 American hostages out Iraq, and sheltered about 800 Americans in the embassy compound. At the time, Novak’s then-partner, Rowland Evans, wrote that Wilson displayed “the stuff of heroism.” And President George H. W. Bush commended Wilson: “Your courageous leadership during this period of great danger for American interests and American citizens has my admiration and respect. I salute, too, your skillful conduct of our tense dealings with the government of Iraq….The courage and tenacity you have exhibited throughout this ordeal prove that you are the right person for the job.”

The current Bush administration has not been so appreciative of Wilson’s more recent efforts. In Niger, he met with past and present government officials and persons involved in the uranium business and concluded that it was “highly doubtful” that Hussein had been able to purchase uranium from that nation. On June 12, The Washington Post revealed that an unnamed ambassador had traveled to Niger and had reported back that the Niger caper probably never happened. This article revved up the controversy over Bush’s claim–which he made in the state of the union speech–that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program.


Critics were charging that this allegation had been part of a Bush effort to mislead the country to war, and the administration was maintaining that at the time of the speech the White House had no reason to suspect this particular sentence was based on faulty intelligence. “Maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the agency,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said days before the Post article ran. “But no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions.” Wilson’s mission to Niger provided more reason to wonder if the administration’s denials were on the level. And once Wilson went public, he prompted a new round of inconvenient and troubling questions for the White House. (Wilson, who opposed the latest war in Iraq, had not revealed his trip to Niger during the prewar months, when he was a key participant in the media debate over whether the country should go to war.)

Soon after Wilson disclosed his trip in the media and made the White House look bad. the payback came. Novak’s July 14, 2003, column presented the back-story on Wilson’s mission and contained the following sentences: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate” the allegation.

Wilson caused problems for the White House, and his wife was outed as an undercover CIA officer. Wilson says, “I will not answer questions about my wife. This is not about me and less so about my wife. It has always been about the facts underpinning the President’s statement in the state of the union speech.”

So he will neither confirm nor deny that his wife–who is the mother of three-year-old twins–works for the CIA. But let’s assume she does. That would seem to mean that the Bush administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives in order to punish Wilson or to send a message to others who might challenge it.

The sources for Novak’s assertion about Wilson’s wife appear to be “two senior administration officials.” If so, a pair of top Bush officials told a reporter the name of a CIA operative who apparently has worked under what’s known as “nonofficial cover” and who has had the dicey and difficult mission of tracking parties trying to buy or sell weapons of mass destruction or WMD material. If Wilson’s wife is such a person–and the CIA is unlikely to have many employees like her–her career has been destroyed by the Bush administration. (Assuming she did not tell friends and family about her real job, these Bush officials have also damaged her personal life.) Without acknowledging whether she is a deep-cover CIA employee, Wilson says, “Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames.” If she is not a CIA employee and Novak is reporting accurately, then the White House has wrongly branded a woman known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm as a CIA officer. That would not likely do her much good.

This is not only a possible breach of national security; it is a potential violation of law. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a crime for anyone who has access to classified information to disclose intentionally information identifying a covert agent. The punishment for such an offense is a fine of up to $50,000 and/or up to ten years in prison. Journalists are protected from prosecution, unless they engage in a “pattern of activities” to name agents in order to impair US intelligence activities. So Novak need not worry.

Novak tells me that he was indeed tipped off by government officials about Wilson’s wife and had no reluctance about naming her. “I figured if they gave it to me,” he says. “They’d give it to others….I’m a reporter. Somebody gives me information and it’s accurate. I generally use it.” And Wilson says Novak told him that his sources were administration officials.

So where’s the investigation? Remember Filegate–and the Republican charge that the Clinton White House was using privileged information against its political foes? In this instance, it appears possible–perhaps likely–that Bush administration officials gathered material on Wilson and his family and then revealed classified information to lash out at him, and in doing so compromised national security.

Was Wilson’s wife involved in sending him off to Niger? Wilson won’t talk about her. But in response to this query, he says, “I was invited out to meet with a group of people at the CIA who were interested in this subject. None I knew more than casually. They asked me about my understanding of the uranium business and my familiarity with the people in the Niger government at the time. And they asked, ‘what would you do?’ We gamed it out–what I would be looking for. Nothing was concluded at that time. I told them if they wanted me to go to Niger I would clear my schedule. Then they got back to me and said, ‘yes, we want you to go.'”

Is it relevant that Wilson’s wife might have suggested him for the unpaid gig. Not really. And Wilson notes, with a laugh, that at that point their twins were two years old, and it would not have been much in his wife’s interest to encourage him to head off to Africa. What matters is that Wilson returned with the right answer and dutifully reported his conclusions. (In March 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that the documents upon which the Niger allegation was based were amateurish forgeries.) His wife’s role–if she had one–has nothing but anecdotal value. And Novak’s sources could have mentioned it without providing her name. Instead, they were quite generous.

“Stories like this,” Wilson says, “are not intended to intimidate me, since I’ve already told my story. But it’s pretty clear it is intended to intimidate others who might come forward. You need only look at the stories of intelligence analysts who say they have been pressured. They may have kids in college, they may be vulnerable to these types of smears.”

Will there be any inquiry? Journalists who write about national security matters (as I often do) tend not to big fans of pursuing government officials who leak classified information. But since Bush administration officials are so devoted to protecting government secrets–such as the identity of the energy lobbyists with whom the vice president meets–one might (theoretically) expect them to be appalled by the prospect that classified information was disclosed and national security harmed for the purposes of mounting a political hit job. Yet two days after the Novak column’s appearance, there has not been any public comment from the White House or any other public reverberation.

The Wilson smear was a thuggish act. Bush and his crew abused and misused intelligence to make their case for war. Now there is evidence Bushies used classified information and put the nation’s counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score. It is a sign that with this gang politics trumps national security.