NOVAK-GATE?

Kevin Drum calls attention to this WaPo story alleging that “administration officials” leaked the name of a CIA covert agent to Bob Novak to exact revenge on her husband.

At CIA Director George J. Tenet’s request, the Justice Department is looking into an allegation that administration officials leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer to a journalist, government sources said yesterday.

The operative’s identity was published in July after her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly challenged President Bush’s claim that Iraq had tried to buy “yellowcake” uranium ore from Africa for possible use in nuclear weapons. Bush later backed away from the claim.

The intentional disclosure of a covert operative’s identity is a violation of federal law.

The officer’s name was disclosed on July 14 in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak, who said his sources were two senior administration officials.

Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife. Wilson had just revealed that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson’s account touched off a political fracas over Bush’s use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.

“Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,” the senior official said of the alleged leak.

***

Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife’s occupation, has suggested publicly that he believes Bush’s senior adviser, Karl C. Rove, broke her cover. Wilson said Aug. 21 at a public forum in suburban Seattle that it is of keen interest to him “to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that he knows of no leaks about Wilson’s wife. “That is not the way this White House operates, and no one would be authorized to do such a thing,” McClellan said. “I don’t have any information beyond an anonymous source in a media report to suggest there is anything to this. If someone has information of this nature, then he or she should report it to the Department of Justice.”

McClellan, who Rove had speak for him, said of Wilson’s comments: “It is a ridiculous suggestion, and it is simply not true.” McClellan was asked about Wilson’s charge at a White House briefing Sept. 16 and said the accusation is “totally ridiculous.”

Administration officials said Tenet sent a memo to the Justice Department raising a series of questions about whether a leaker had broken federal law by disclosing the identity of an undercover officer. The CIA request was reported Friday night by MSNBC.com. Administration sources familiar with the matter said the Justice Department is determining whether a formal investigation is warranted.

***

The Intelligence Protection Act, passed in 1982, imposes maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines for unauthorized disclosure by government employees with access to classified information.

I saw mention of this on Drudge, but didn’t pay it much attention given his propensity to over-hype stories and the fact that I’m pretty busy packing stuff and carting it down three flights of stairs. Strangely, there’s no trace of it on the page now.

Kevin’s comments are here:

  • This involves two top White House officials who blew the cover of a CIA agent solely for payback against a minor political enemy.
  • They systematically called six different journalists.
  • Only Robert Novak went with the story. (Which, by the way, actually speaks pretty well of the rest of the Washington press corps.)
  • There are a whole bunch of people, including Mike Allen and Dana Priest, who know who the White House officials are.
  • and here:

    As much as I despise the team in the White House, I always thought that — in their own way — they were doing what they thought was best for America. I never thought they would betray their own country just out of spite. I really didn’t.

    But if they’ll do something like this, they’ll do anything. I guess Krugman was right all along: these are radical ideologues who care about nothing except staying in power and will do anything, no matter how craven and malevolent, to get what they want.

    I certainly want to get more information before going that far. If, indeed, any Administration official leaked the name of an undercover CIA agent, risking not only her life but that of her sources, they should be imprisoned. If it can be demonstrated that President Bush knew of this, it would of course be an impeachable offense for which he should be removed from office. But let’s wait and see.

    I recall reading the Novak column in question, and didn’t think anything was unusual at the time. The mention of Wilson’s wife comes late in the piece and very casually:

    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 Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. “I will not answer any question about my wife,” Wilson told me.

    I just naturally assumed “operative” meant something other than “undercover agent,” since CIA presumably has people openly serving as nuclear weapons inspectors and analysts. Further, Wilson himself is described in the piece in a very favorable light,

    His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein’s wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.”

    so any idea that this was a hatchet piece never occured to me and, indeed, still seems rather implausible. Indeed, the idea that Novak, whom I don’t care for as a TV commentator but I respect as a reporter, would knowingly “out” a CIA agent strikes me as far-fetched.

    I wouldn’t think Karl Rove would do so a thing, either, of course, but he is rather ruthless in his zeal to protect George W. Bush. But, even if we were to ascribe the most Machiavellian of attributes to Rove–which I’m not quite ready to do, even though I’m no fan–this strikes me as a high risk, low reward action. As inclined as I am to believe that there was a WMD program extant in Iraq at the time we launched the war, the Novak piece didn’t do anything to make me say, Aha! It was rather innocuous. Indeed, given its placement in the piece, the Plame revelation apparently didn’t even strike Novak as particularly a big deal.

    I’m also somewhat encouraged by the lack of attention this is getting elsewhere: NYT has this story buried on their website; presumably it is not Page 1 in the print edition. And the piece itself is short and reads like a routine, “Oh, the CIA is looking into an allegation” story. The Associated Press, USA Today, GoogleNews, YahooNews, don’t carry it at all. Contrast this with how quickly the Lewinsky scandal spread to all corners once released: And that was when the entirety of the story was that Clinton had had sex with an intern–before we knew that he had perjured himself before a grand jury and before the silly cover-up that followed.

    I concur fully, however, with Kevin’s closing to his first post: Stay tuned. Stay very tuned.

    FILED UNDER: Iraq War,
    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

    Comments

    1. Mark-NC says:

      You end this piece by reminding us how quickly the Lewinsky story was spread by the so called “liberal press”.

      I would say that, if this had happened under Clinton, the story would have been front page EVERYWHERE – long ago.

    2. Kevin Drum says:

      This story has been bubbling for a couple of months, ever since Novak’s column. And Novak admits that the CIA asked him not to mention Plame and he decided to do it anyway.

      In any case, the NYT story you mention is from the previous day, and is merely the story that the Justice Dept. has decided to investigate. The Post story is new news, and confirms that this really happened.

      It stinks. It really stinks.

    3. Joey says:

      I think this leak is a bad thing, but it’s not entirely clear what role Plame plays with the CIA. Is she an undercover agent, or does she merely do some analysis-type desk work that, while “classified,” doesn’t necessarily put her life of the life of others in danger?

    4. Apache says:

      When I see a Democratic party apparatchik like Drum bottom feeding on a months old story, I tend to discount the message because of the messenger.

      If the story gains traction through other sources, then I will take a look. Other than that, it just looks like more posturing and background noise in the run up to 2004.

      I give it less attention than I do to Kucinich complaining about mind control satellites.

    5. Jon H says:

      joey writes: “I think this leak is a bad thing, but it’s not entirely clear what role Plame plays with the CIA. Is she an undercover agent, or does she merely do some analysis-type desk work that, while “classified,” doesn’t necessarily put her life of the life of others in danger?”

      The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak. I don’t think they would have bothered to do that if Plame were not an undercover agent. This is the important context that should not be overlooked.

      The fact that the CIA has asked for the investigation shows that the outing was in fact significant. They wouldn’t have passed it to DOJ if Plame worked in the cafeteria.

    6. IceCold says:

      A leak of the sort alleged would be deplorable, and even felonious.

      But what’s criminal in a different sense, and incomprehensible, is why the WH or anyone close to it would get involved in a personal battle with Wilson instead of just pointing out how irrelevant his criticisms were. The State of the Union passage relating to Iraqi uranium shopping efforts in Africa referred to a British assessment (in turn based on the work of another intel agency, probably the French), which the Brits have stated did not take any account of the allegedly forged letter on Niger that was the hook of Wilson’s story. Forged Niger letter or no, the SOTU language stands or falls on completely separate material, which neither Wilson or anyone else has (publicly) laid a glove on.

      In fact, both PM Blair and a parliamentary panel have publicly stood by the UK assessment over the last several months. Perhaps the assessment is wrong — but no one has publicly given reasons to think so. Yet MSNBC and AP and others routinely call the Africa/uranium report “discredited” — without any basis whatever. A pretty enlightening example of current levels of editorial integrity and competence.

      So why bother to attack Wilson at all? Why not just point out that his criticism is irrelevant, as it fails to address the basis for the SOTU language (Brit/French intel assessment) or the issue itself? It’s hard to decide which is more troubling — the alleged outrage of leaking classified info, or the proven outrage of failing to debunk “criticism” that is at variance with publicly known facts.

      Separate issue: why and how would anyone in the WH — especially the political shop — have any idea whether or not Wilson’s spouse was a CIA employee — clandestine or declared? I don’t believe people in the WH or NSC normally have any access to such info. It’s not as though there’s a staff phone book they can just peak into. No one is remarking on this, but to me it’s the oddest aspect of all.

    7. Laura in DC says:

      “Novekgate” is a great name for this. I saw somewhere they were having a contest to name this scandal, but I forget where. If I find it I will come back here and post it.

    8. Bob McMahan says:

      If Joe Wilson had been in the Foreign Service 15 years in 1991, he would have entered in 1976, the year I came in. He was not in the 125th class with me, maybe in the one before in that year. I can’t find his name in AFSA’s retired list. Does anyone know if he was an FSO or something else?

    9. Bob McMahan says:

      If Joe Wilson had been in the Foreign Service 15 years in 1991, he would have entered in 1976, the year I came in. He was not in the 125th class with me, maybe in the one before in that year. I can’t find his name in AFSA’s retired list. Does anyone know if he was an FSO or something else?