Thursday, May 31, 2007

Unfinished Business

We've written at length about the Valerie Plame affair, which began when Scooter Libby and other Bush Administration officials supposedly "outed" Ms. Plame, who was described as a "covert" CIA employee. Mr. Libby was eventually indicted (and convicted) in the case, but not for the crime of exposing Ms. Plame, but rather, for lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. He is scheduled for sentencing next month.

In hindsight, the decision to prosecute Libby alone--and not for the "original" crime--seems a bit odd, because Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has produced information that suggests Ms. Plame was "covert" at the time her identity was revealed. In a 18-page sentencing recommendation for the Libby case, Mr. Fitzgerald included a declassified summary of Plame's employment history during the period when her identity was revealed. According to the information (provided by the CIA), Ms. Plame was considered a "covert" employee when her agency affiliation was disclosed in Robert Novak's July 14, 2003 column.

A number of liberal pundits, including the Nation's David Corn, have been positively gleeful over this revelation, claiming that Fitzgerald's disclosure proves that Plame was indeed, a covert agent, and that administration officials were out to "get" Ms. Plame and her husband, former Ambassador (and Bush critic) Joe Wilson.

Not so fast. The CIA summary begs the most obvious question: if Plame was a covert CIA employee, then why did Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald take a pass on indicting anyone for revealing her identity? True, the current law presents a rather steep legal challenge; divulging the name of a covert agent is only a crime if (a) the individual was undercover at the time of the disclosure, and (b) the leaker deliberately provided information about someone known to be covered by that law.

But if Mr. Fitzgerald and his staff were able to convince a jury to convict Lewis on four of five felony counts, they were up to the task of persuading jurors that Richard Armitage, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and God Knows Who Else were part of a campaign to smear Mr. Wilson and his wife. But only Mr. Libby is facing sentencing this week; Fitzgerald is essentially closing up shop and says he has no current plans to indict anyone else in the Plame affair. History will record that Mr. Armitage was perhaps the first to discuss Ms. Plame's employment with reporters, but there was (apparently) no consideration of indicting him. Why?

Over at Captain's Quarters, Ed Morrissey was among the first to reach the most obvious explanation. Indicting Armitage, Libby or anyone else for "revealing" Plame's covert identity would have opened a Pandora's box for the prosecution, raising serious questions about the CIA, it's non-official cover program for covert agents, and Ms. Plame's own recklessness in "protecting" her identity. As we've said before, Valerie Plame's affiliation with the agency was one of the nation's worst-kept intelligence secrets. Consider these inconvenient facts:

--Plame's identity as a covert agent was first exposed to the Russians in the mid-1990s by one of their U.S.-based operatives, possibly CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames. And, if that weren't bad enough, Cuban intelligence also learned of her affiliation, when documents bound for the U.S. Interests Section in Havana fell into their hands. These "outings" (which occurred years before the Novak column) were the primary reason that Ms. Plame was manning a desk at Langley in 2003.

--According to the CIA employment summary cited by Fitzgerald, Ms. Plame traveled overseas
at least 7-10 times in the years leading up to the disclosure. On some trips, she traveled under an assumed name; on other occasions, she used her own name. But she always traveled using cover--whether official or non-official (NOC) --with no ostensible relationship to the CIA" [emphasis mine]. If Ms. Plame was trying to conceal her agency connection, you'd think that she would at least show some consistency, and use an assumed name on all overseas trips.

--Federal election records show that Plame donated money--under her own name--to Al Gore's 2000 Presidential campaign. Her employer is listed as Brewster Jennings, the CIA front company that provided her NOC for many years. As we've noted before, Brewster Jennings was well-known in some intel circles as a CIA front for years; allowing the campaign contribution to identify Plame with the front company suggests one of two possibilities. Either (a) Ms. Plame was incredibly careless, or (b) she realized that her "cover" had been blown years before (by the Russian disclosure), and saw little reason to further mask her tracks.

Protecting the identity of a covert agent is clearly a two-way street. The agency must provide cover that effectively "hides" the operative's affiliation, while allowing them to carry out their assignment. The agent, in turn, has their own responsibility to protect their identity, and prevent their identification as an intelligence operative. In these regards, both the CIA and Valerie Plame failed miserably. As a "front" Brewster Jennings was a sham; it's home office" in Boston lacked a working phone number, and reporters found no evidence of employees or activity at its listed address. Ms. Plame, in turn, used her real name in connection with the flimsy front company and official agency travels--activities that highlighted her CIA connection long before Scooter Libby entered the picture.

Equally curious is the CIA's willingness to go along with Fitzgerald's investigation, despite its potential impact on national security. According to the agency:

"...the public interest in allowing the criminal prosecution to proceed outweighed the damage to national security that might reasonably be expected from the official disclosure of Ms. Wilson's employment and cover status."

Remember, a CIA front company often provides cover for multiple agents and other employees. The revelation that Valerie Plame was covert--and affiliated with Brewster Jennings--possibly put other agency operatives at risk for exposure, even death. But the folks at Langley were willing to take that chance, in support of Fitzgerald's search for "the leaker." And, lest we forget, this is the same agency that has consistently dragged its feet on leaks within its own ranks. Over a 10-year period (1995-2005), the intelligence community tabulated 600 unauthorized disclosures of classified information--many from the CIA--but there wasn't a single, successful prosecution. FBI and Justice Department officials indicate that the agency--to no one's surprise --often stonewalls leak investigations.

But when the opportunity arose to go after an enemy from the White House, the CIA was only too happy to cooperate, national security and institutional practices be damned. There was likely some victory dances at Langley when the Libby verdict was announced, and there will be more celebrating when the sentence is handed down next week. Amid the euphoria, there may also be a sense of relief. By refusing to go after the original charge--exposing a covert agent--Mr. Fitzgerald did the agency (and Valerie Plame) a huge favor. He saved them the embarrassment of having to tell the court how they blew her cover years before. Maybe that's why the CIA was so eager to cooperate with the special prosecutor.

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