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Thursday, July 12, 2012

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Valerie Plame

"Wilson's wife is fair game."

In 2003, as part of his effort to build public support for an invasion of Iraq, President Bush made a speech which included the words "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." This was called a lie and President Bush was pressured to retract the statement, and later did. Objectively, the statement was not a lie in any sense of the word - the British Government may have been mistaken, but President Bush noting what they believed to be true was not in any remotest sense a lie.

Joe Wilson had been sent to Niger to discover information about any uranium sales to Iraq earlier, and he responded to this statement by writing an opinion piece for the New York Times claiming his visit there had led him to conclude that it was "highly doubtful" that Iraq had purchased any Yellowcake Uranium from the country.
Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?

Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

The question now is how that answer was or was not used by our political leadership. If my information was deemed inaccurate, I understand (though I would be very interested to know why). If, however, the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.

Wilson had been sent there on the suggestion of his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA.

According to Valerie Plame, here's how it went:
The co-worker had been sitting at her desk when her green phone the secure line used by CIA agents rang. Someone from the Office of the Vice President was on the line. They were following up an intelligence report that alleged that Iraq had sought yellowcake uranium from Niger in 1999. They wanted to know if this could be further substantiated, and if any such efforts had occurred since.

Plame was intrigued. Usually such a request went through different channels and wasn't normally so direct, nor was it delivered to such a junior agent. The call caused quite a frenzy in the office.

As she was talking to her colleagues in the hallway about the unusual call, she recalled, one colleague suggested, "What about talking to Joe about it?"

It was a logical choice, as Wilson was an expert in African affairs, and had been sent in 1999 to look into uranium issues.

Sure, she said, she'd check with him and ask him to get in contact with the case team. Later that day, she sent an email to her boss.

"My husband has good relations with both the PM and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity."
Later, Robert Novak wrote a piece in the Washington Post called "Mission to Niger" in which he mentioned the Plame-Wilson connection.
Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.
Valerie Plame was a "NOC" or undercover, covert agent working for the CIA, and the left claimed that this Novak piece had blown her cover, and it was done deliberately by the Bush administration to retaliate for Joe Wilson's piece in the New York Times. A special prosecutor was appointed and he began to investigate who leaked this information, why, and what the ultimate result had been.

For weeks we were told about how Valerie Plame was a valuable spy who had been "outed" and now could not work, how this damaged our efforts to fight the war on terror, and most importantly how the Bush administration had ruined the lives of two people for daring to speak the truth to power about how it lied us into a pointless war.

Was that all true? Not really.

To begin with, Valerie Plame's identity as a covert operative had already been blown by a mole. That mole was spy Aldrich Ames, who had blow the cover of a lot of spies by the time he was caught in 1994, and the people whose identity he'd revealed to Soviet (and later Russian) intelligence was discovered and those people were put in other positions. Once a spy's identity has been revealed to any intelligence operation, their cover isn't trusted for later work. In other words, they stop being "deep cover" operatives.

Valerie Plame was a desk analyst for the CIA, not James Bond. Her covert work was over in the mid 90s, she didn't have "cover" or a secret identity at this point. She drove from home to work at the CIA every day, openly. She was an employee there, not a spy in the sense people mean by that word.

Yet the investigation went on, because it is a criminal offense to reveal the name of a NOC, a covert agent. Except she wasn't a covert agent any longer, and not covered by that law. Her relationship to Joe Wilson wasn't secret; they were listed in the Who's Who book of famous and influential people. To qualify for the law, she had to have been a covert agent within five years of being revealed, and her last work would have been before they revealed Ames as a spy, in 1994, nine years before the Novak piece.

The left argued that the evil Dick Cheney was the source for Novak's piece and he'd soon be "frogmarched" to jail in front of the gleeful press for violating this law. Rumors swirled about secret meetings and a conspiracy to destroy Plame and Wilson.

Except early on, the leak was revealed. Novak eventually revealed that Karl Rove, presidential advisor, was the second leak, but that he only confirmed what the original leak was. Who was this troublesome leaker? Richard Armitage, major Democratic Party figure.
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage acknowledged Thursday that he was the source who first revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak back in 2003, touching off a federal investigation.

Armitage told the CBS Evening News that he did so inadvertently.

"I feel terrible," Armitage said. "Every day, I think, I let down the president. I let down the secretary of state. I let down my department, my family, and I also let down Mr. and Mrs. Wilson."
This was not a secret, it wasn't hidden away or obscurely reported. It wasn't on some blog or a rumor. Major news organizations reported it long before the trials the Special Prosecutor set up had concluded. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald discovered this on his own months before the news reports were released.

So why the trial? The entire point was to find out who had leaked the name and punish them for violating the law against revealing the name of CIA covert operatives. Except they already knew she wasn't a covert operative and had found out the name of the leak. Armitage wasn't punished, didn't face trial, and wasn't even indicted. He said he was sorry, and the news moved on, while the trial continued.

Judith Miller, one of the only people at the New York Times who wrote stories that supported the president's arguments on Iraq was arrested for not revealing her administration source. That source was eventually revealed to have been "Scooter" Libby. Libby eventually was the one that ended up taking the fall for all this. He was questioned for hours and hours over weeks and eventually was charged with perjury because his testimony varied on several key issues under questioning.

Did he really change his story or lie, committing perjury before court, or did he just get confused and state things differently after being grilled for hours every day? In the end, it didn't really matter, because the special prosecutor needed a body. He'd spent millions of dollars and years of time, he had to show results. He needed a fall guy, and Libby ended up being that guy.

Ultimately the argument against the Bush administration never made any sense to begin with. How does it discredit Joe Wilson to reveal his wife was a spy? How does this hurt his case that Niger probably didn't sell any uranium to Iraq? There's no rational substance to the entire argument. So his wife suggested him, she didn't have the power to send Joe Wilson anywhere (probably it was Mary McCarthy, leftist Democrat who sent him). That's irrelevant to his point and doesn't harm his claims at all.

Because that's the entire argument the left used: Wilson caused problems for the White House, and his wife was outed as an undercover CIA officer. Except she wasn't covert, and she was outed by Armitage, an enemy of the Bush administration's Iraq invasion. So were Joe Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Valerie Plame, and several others involved in this whole ordeal. And Novak always maintained that this wasn't some carefully planted leak but an offhand remark during a discussion of other topics.

In other words, Plame's name wasn't dropped as an attempt to actually nail her or Wilson somehow (still not clear to me how this was supposed to make any difference) but just as an aside in a conversation. Curious, Novak went to talk to Karl Rove, who confirmed that bit of information - and probably other pieces as well.

Further, when Joe Wilson actually testified under oath to congress about his trip, his tone was entirely different. He noted that the sale could have taken place and that Niger had previously sold uranium to Iraq. In fact, 550 metric tons of yellowcake uranium were found in Iraq, from Niger. This kind of uranium is especially useful for making nuclear weapons, and it was purchased after their nuclear power plant had been destroyed by Israel in 1981. You don't make frosting out of weapons-grade uranium.

And his report wasn't that the sale could not and did not happen only that based on the structure of the uranium industry and government oversight it was highly unlikely that it took place without the Nigerian government being aware of it. Which is probably true, but does not in any way argue that the Nigerian government did not go ahead and allow the sale anyway, nor that the companies couldn't have made the sale secretly.

I believe this is what happened: Wilson gave the Democrats in congress a foothold to argue that the president lied to get the US into war. They thought they had a tool to damage a popular Republican they despised for winning in 2000 and not just rolling over like everyone else did when they contested an election in the courts. So they pushed the "revealed spy" story and the press jumped on it, gleeful to help topple President Bush. A special prosecutor was hired to clear up the story, and he found out there wasn't really anything there he could work with, so he found a way to get someone in prison to justify his efforts and cost.

The CIA, like much of the Bush administration was divided between former Clinton era appointees and hires who despised the president and worked to fight and undermine him constantly, and people who were loyal to the president who fought to support him. This war caused constant leaks, friction, and trouble the entire length of the Bush administration, and this entire affair was one part of that war.

And Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson became superstars on the left, with Vanity Fair profiles, interviews, and even a fact-mangling movie with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. Vice President Cheney didn't get frogmarched anywhere despite repeated, gleeful predictions. Novak died without facing any criminal charges for his story. Richard Armitage left the White House in 2004, and never faced any criminal charges, there's not even any indication he was investigated. No conspiracy was found.

To this day, the left talks about Valerie Plame, superspy like she was Jane Bond fighting evil around the world until the wicked Darth Cheney ruined her career for political gain. But in the end the story is really almost nothing like what we were told by the press. Again.

This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

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