Friday, March 23, 2007

The Valerie Plame Affair

If you need reminding, this little scandal began in ‘03 when a columnist/reporter, Robert Novak, sometimes referred to as the Prince of Darkness by his critics, “outed” a CIA “operative,” who was the wife of the former Ambassador, appointed by Bush I, named Joseph Wilson. Wilson had recently written an op-ed column stating that he had gone to Niger to report on the truth of the allegation that Iraq was seeking to buy yellowcake uranium there. As the fear of Iraq obtaining an atomic weapon was a chief reason for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the article apparently made the vice president furious, particularly as it singled his office out as requesting the investigation . . .

Wilson wrote (The New York Times, July 6, 2003):

In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake — a form of lightly processed ore — by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office.

After consulting with the State Department's African Affairs Bureau (and through it with Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, the United States ambassador to Niger), I agreed to make the trip. The mission I undertook was discreet but by no means secret. While the C.I.A. paid my expenses (my time was offered pro bono), I made it abundantly clear to everyone I met that I was acting on behalf of the United States government.”

According to Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, who testified at a March 16, 2007 hearing before a Congressional Committee (speaking publicly about it for the first time with CIA permission), she was approached by a co-worker who had received a fax from the Vice President’s office requesting information about the Niger-Iraq connection. Another CIA officer, walking by, who had already worked with Plame’s husband on other missions, suggested that Wilson go. They went to a superior who asked Plame to request that her husband come in to speak with them, which she did. He came the following week. Plame introduced her husband at the meeting and, being very busy, left. She also testified that she would not have had the authority to send him on the mission. She also said that both of them were reluctant that he go, and, Wilson, for one, did not think it necessary.

Sometime after her identity was made public by Novak an officer in the same department as Plame (counterproliferation of Nuclear weapons), testified before a different committee that it was Plame’s idea. According to Plame, that officer approached her, saying he was misunderstood, and wrote a memo asking to be sent to testify again. Nothing came of it, and she was thereby assumed to have been the person to request him. The CIA has publicly denied that she was the cause of his trip.

The irony here is that if she had suggested sending her husband, that would somehow have impugned Wilson’s report. That makes little sense without something more indicating there was an ulterior motive. The fact that they are both Democrats isn’t enough, unless party affiliation is how you determine most or all issues (and that covers a lot of people).

Everyone seems to agree, on both sides of the aisle, that it is a bad thing when a covert CIA officer is unmasked. There is an express federal law against it passed in1964. The fear is that not only will their lives be endangered, but that the lives of people outside of the country, even ones who did not know she was CIA, who worked with her, may have live

According to this law it is illegal to intentionally identify a covert intelligence agent if the person knows that the information discloses the agent and if the CIA has taken affirmative steps to protect its association with the person. Violation carries a fine and imprisonment up to ten years.

That is a pretty high standard. Essentially, a defense might be that the person disclosing the information did not know that the agent was covert, or, that the CIA did not take affirmative steps to protect the information.

Which agents are covert? That is defined as a present or retired intelligence officer or employee (and some others) whose identity as such is classified, and, who is or has served outside of the United States within the past five years.

What would a classified job be? This is defined in the same place. Classified means knowledge protected by a presidential order or statute.

The presidential order in question is known as PE 13292, signed by President Bush in March, 2003, updating a similar order by Clinton when he was President. It explains how to classify or declassify information. The order is not easy reading, and much of it seems to only refer to documents, but it also applies to other types of information, like a person whose job is classified. You can take a look if you want (although I would set aside an hour or so to understand it) but to make it easier for you, the order allows agency heads (such as intelligence agencies) to classify information. In other words, the CIA, or other intelligence agency, director can make his officers identities secret by classifying them.

Plame insists she was covert, and that she has served outside of the United States on secret missions within the last 5 years from when she testified (and therefore, definitely within 5 years from when she was unmasked) which would probably bring her under the statute. She even had a phony company that she used as a cover.

So was she covert according to the definition in the statute? On the face of it, it seems so but the issue is a little tricky. Apparently, Novak spoke with the CIA and they did not tell him she was covert. But why would they? Why would they even acknowledge she worked there? That would seem to defeat the policy of keeping the secret. However, they also apparently did not even suggest he not print the information. Maybe they thought the best thing to do was not to say anything. Or, maybe, like most large organizations, there is a high degree of incompetence.

This is where the second requirement in the statutory definition of covert comes in. Every year the president has to give a report to Congress on the efforts made to keep covert agents’ identities secret. Is this what is meant by the agency taking affirmative steps to protect the secret? Since this requirement is found in the same area of the law, it might. On the other hand, why wouldn’t the definition just state that the report was all that was necessary. But when Novak was going to release her name (which Plame and her husband knew and reported to the CIA) the CIA did not do anything substantive to stop him. Shouldn’t that be counted as not taking affirmative steps?

Robert Grenier is a longtime Senior CIA employee who testified at the Libby trial. He stated that he had been called out of a meeting with his boss, George Tenet, about a month before the Novak article, to answer questions for Libby and told him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. He remembers the occasion because it was unusual He also said that Libby later thanked him for the information. This is one of the reasons the jury did not believe that Libby was telling the truth about when he learned Plame was Wilson’s wife. But I digress. The real point is that Grenier did not tell Libby at the time that Plame was covert . Afterwards the disclosure, he told Cheney and Libby that lives could be lost as a result of the disclosure. When Plame testified before Congress, she stated that given the department she was in, she found it hard to understand how Grenier would not presume she was covert.

So, it is hard to say for sure whether Plame was covert (she says so) unless the CIA shows the method by which she was made so according to an established method. Clearly, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Libby did not think he had enough to prosecute anyone in the White House or VP’s office for a crime (remember, Libby was prosecuted and convicted for perjury, lying to the FBI and obstructing justice). That might be simply because there is no proof that any of them knew of her covert status, or because the CIA did not take affirmative steps to protect her association with them. I note in passing that the first person to tell Novak that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent, Richard Armitage, had no connection with the VP’s office, and was a State Department official.

In this case, even if you believe that care should have been taken by Cheney, Libby, Rove, and even Novak to make sure Plame was not covert, prosecuting them for a crime is a different story. There is no evidence I know of which would indicate that any of them did know she was covert. In fact, many are critical of the fact that the CIA did not do anything to protect her status.

Forget the criminal aspect, however. It is the cavalier actions taken by the administration that is difficult to swallow. None of the people disclosing the information were novices. There is no doubt after the Libby trial that it was important to the VP’s office to leak Plame’s CIA connection and they did do so, mostly through Libby. If Republicans and conservatives are going to not care whether a CIA officer is covert or not, at least enough to ask, they are going to have to give up their vaunted claim that they are the party most concerned with national security.

Unlike the ongoing U.S. Attorney broohaha, which has surpassed the Plame affair in the news, this is worth getting answers to. Whether or not the administration knew she was covert or not (or even if she is not, to her surprise) the VP and his staff, and Rove, should be ashamed that they took the actions they did without taking absolute care to make sure she was not.

And here is the interesting thing. At the same hearing that Plame testified at, the committee also heard from, among others, the Director of the White House Office of Security, Dr. James Knodell, a stone faced and solid looking guy if there ever was one. Despite the fact that Presidential Order 13292 imposes “administrative sanctions” . . . on an individual who fails to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure,” no investigation was ever done by Knodell, whose job it was to make sure secrets are kept. No one ever suggested to him that he do so, despite President Bush’s public claim that anyone found involved would be fired. That is astounding. His claim that he didn’t do anything because there was a criminal investigation (now over and not involving Cheney or Rove) came out very weak. It seemed to me that he was embarrassed.

Watching the Plame hearing I could not help but note that none of the Congresspersons present seemed to be aware of any of the laws discussed here. When Plame was first outed it took me only a few minutes to find and read the applicable statutes, which are very short and plain English, and less than an hour to read the presidential order, which is lengthy, dense and repetitive. The committee members were either at the mercy of the witnesses as to what the law was, or sputtered out their rage against them if they disagreed. Congressional hearings continue to be photo ops for Congress with the starring roles usually given to the chairperson, who sits because his party is in power.

Why a member of Congress or their staff can’t get on the internet and look the law up themselves on important issues, I just don’t know, although I suspect that their time spent fundraising has something to do with it.

One other issue. It has been stated by Vice President Cheney that he was authorized by Bush in a secret order, to declassify certain information. This smacks of a post dated command, if you get my drift. Why keep that a secret? Why wasn’t PE 13292 amended? It is unlikely that anyone will ever have to answer these questions or press the VP or President to answer.

Maybe some of you have seen broadcasts of the British Prime Minister answering questions from the entire House of Commons on a weekly basis. It is not only the best political show on television, but a way to force authority to answer questions while an issue is still in the forefront. I can’t imagine why we don’t something similar, except for fact that many of our elected Presidents just would not be up to it. That’s too bad.

The verdict here: Director Knowles should advise President Bush, that short of an order to the contrary from him, he will begin to do his job and have an investigation, and make the findings public, unless Congress gets on the stick, and does its job of full oversight. An administration whose members out CIA agents without taking care that they are covert, need to be looked into. When the covert nature of CIA or other intelligence officers becomes so unimportant, we are really in trouble.

It’s not going to happen, of course. Dr. Knowles will go back to his apparently cushy job and say nothing, despite being scolded by some members of the committee for his inaction. I guess he can’t imagine facing down the President after such an announcement.

The Democrats in Congress, who are finding the courage to challenge Bush over the U.S. Attorney firings, should also investigate it, not the least in order to determine whether the criminal statute for outing an agent should be changed, and whether there is a need to supercede Presidential Orders in this regard with a permanent statute that affords more protection for our intelligence community. I doubt that will happen either, as Congress is fixated on what they perceive as a far more political matter.

But that's situation normal, isn’t it?

Housekeeping note: Tomorrow, an update on the 2008 campaign will be posted.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .