Thursday, March 22, 2007

Opportunity Lost

As columnist Robert Novak points out, House Republicans missed a real opportunity by not going after former CIA "operative" Valerie Plame during her Congressional testimony last week.

Mr. Novak notes that there are still critical--and unanswered--questions about the matter, despite a lengthy special prosecutor investigation. That probe was followed, of course, by the indictment (and conviction) of vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby on charges unrelated to the original claim--that White House officials had deliberately leaked the identity of a covert CIA officer (Ms. Plame), in an effort to discredit her husband, administration critic (and former Ambassador) Joe Wilson.

As special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald quickly discovered, Ms. Plame's "status" with the agency did not meet the requirements for a covert operative, outlined in the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Moreover, there is ample evidence that Ms. Plame was assigned to a desk job at Langley when she recommended her husband for that infamous trip to Niger. In fact, her career as a covert operative for the agency was long since over; as we noted last week, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported that Plame's affiliation with the CIA had been leaked to Moscow in 1995 (by a Russian agent), and Cuban intelligence agents learned the same thing from classified documents they obtained a few years later. Other sources suggest that her non-official cover (NOC) had not been updated in years, despite the fact that the Boston-based energy "company" (listed on her old business cards) had been exposed years before as a CIA front.

Additionally, there are indications that Wilson helped "out" his wife, providing information to left-wing journalist David Corn, for a Nation article that appeared shortly after Novak's original column. Corn's piece contained far more information on Plame's employment history and status that Novak had reported; Wilson is quoted extensively in the Nation article, and Mr. Corn has never denied that the former ambassador provided information on his wife's intelligence career. And, long before the controversy began, the couple approved a Who's Who entry that listed Ms. Plame's employer as the CIA.

Yet, when Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California opened the hearing last week, he began with a statement asserting that Plame was a covert operative when her identity was revealed-- a statement that (according Waxman) had been approved by the CIA Director, General Michael Hayden.

Novak writes that several Republicans were stunned by that comment. Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan--former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee--has long pressed the agency on Plame's status at the time of the disclosure, without success. As recently as this week, Hoekstra claims, General Hayden refused to say whether Plame was covert, under the guidelines of the 1982 law. Republicans claim that Hayden's stance on the matter is "proof" that he is too close to Congressional Democrats.

I would suggest a slightly different explanation, although it doesn't exactly cover the CIA--or its new director--in glory. When he moved to Langley, General Hayden inherited an agency in need of serious reform and with elements in open rebellion against the administration and even the intelligence establishment. The Plame controversy was merely one more headache for the CIA Director, and one that he hoped to get rid of, with the end of Fitzgerald's probe, Libby's conviction, and Plame's retirement. Understanding that Democrats now control intelligence oversight--and his budget--Hayden was perhaps willing to let Waxman make his statement, in an effort to make the whole mess go away for good.

As a former intelligence officer, I understand (and support) General Hayden's ultimate goal--a healthy, productive CIA--but in this case, I'm not sure the means justify the end. If Waxman was incorrect, his assertion needs to be clarified. If Plame was, indeed a covert operative (and that remains highly doubtful), that record should also be corrected. Without some sort of official confirmation or denial, the agency remains mired in the mud of partisan politics, reducing its ability to provide critical, unbiased information to our elected leaders. For the sake of the agency--and his own reputation--General Hayden owes everyone clear explanation of Plame's status at the time of Joe Wilson's expedition to Niger.

Likewise, Congressional Republicans should explain their tepid response to Ms. Plame's Congressional appearance last week. As Mr. Novak reports, only two Republicans showed up for her testimony, and their cross-examination of Ms. Plame was weak, to say the least. Essential questions regarding Plame's status went unanswered, and unless the Democrats bring her back for an encore performance, the GOP will never get another public forum to expose the lies and distortions of Mrs. Wilson and her husband.

Chalk it up as another opportunity lost for the Republican minority in Congress, which is (increasingly) adopting the "duck and cover" technique of taking on its foes. Plame's "story" has more holes than a proverbial block of Swiss; even with limited cross-examination time, it would have be relatively easy to poke holes in her account. But most of the committee's GOP members were too busy hiding in the tall grass to take a stand. And they expect us to return them to the majority?

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