Plame and the Nature of CIA Covers

Media Matters for America has put out a press release saying the widely-quoted (including by OTB) AP story about the Valerie Plame Case was wrong:

AP falsely reported Wilson “acknowledged his wife was no longer in an undercover job” when her identity was first publicly leaked

In a July 15 article reporting new details in the ongoing criminal investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity, the Associated Press distorted a remark by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to falsely report that Wilson “acknowledged his wife [Plame] was no longer in an undercover job at the time Novak’s column first identified her.” In fact, Wilson merely emphasized that his wife’s cover was blown at the moment when columnist Robert D. Novak revealed her identity in a July 2003 column.


[A]s Media Matters for America has documented, multiple press outlets reported that Plame was an undercover CIA operative at the time Novak wrote his column.

They report that AP has put out a “corrected” version of the piece and that,

In an interview Friday, Wilson said his comment was meant to reflect that his wife lost her ability to be a covert agent because of the leak, not that she had stopped working for the CIA beforehand.

But, as Glenn Reynolds points out,

Nobody ever said that she wasn’t working for the CIA — the question is whether she was a covert spy or a paperpusher, and the answer seems pretty clearly to be the latter. And “ability to be a covert agent” isn’t the same as actually being a covert agent, though he hopes you’ll miss that. This is, sadly, typical of Wilson here, though it seems that she lost her ability to be a covert agent when she married Wilson, really.

Meanwhile, LAT’s Greg Miller weighs in with a piece today entitled, “Shades of Cover

[…] Although often cast in binary terms — an operative is either undercover or not — there are distinct categories of cover that CIA operatives use, and an almost endless list of components. Some cover is tissue-thin and disposable. Other arrangements are so layered and deep that they anticipate hostile probing of every facet of a person’s life.

Plame’s cover — in which she posed as a private energy consultant while actually working for a CIA department tracking weapons proliferation — was somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said it was unlikely Plame was in danger as a result of being identified. An internal CIA review concluded that her exposure caused minimal damage, mainly because she had been working at headquarters for years, former officials familiar with the review said. Still, her clandestine career is over, and the outrage among many current and former case officers lingers because cover is something they go to such great lengths to protect.


The vast majority of the agency’s overseas officers are under what is known as “official cover,” which means they are posing as employees of another government agency. The State Department allows hundreds of its positions in embassies around the world to be occupied by CIA officers representing themselves as diplomats.

A more rare and dangerous job category is “nonofficial cover” — or “NOC” (pronounced knock) — in which CIA officers pose as employees of international corporations, as scientists or as members of other professions. Such covers tend to provide a plausible reason to work long periods overseas and come in contact with foreign nationals the agency wants to recruit.

Plame worked under official cover early in her career, but moved to nonofficial cover during the 1990s, maintaining that status after she returned from overseas to work at CIA headquarters.


In recent years, she has worked in the counter-proliferation division of the agency’s clandestine service. Despite her continued use of commercial cover until Novak’s column, some former CIA officials contend she was not a NOC in the purest sense of the term, because operatives in that super-secret program rarely go near agency facilities, let alone take jobs at headquarters.

The piece provides a fascinating glimpse into the odd lengths that CIA operatives go through to protect their identity, even when they live in a town where 1 in 5 people work for the Agency.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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.


  1. John Cunningham says:

    Byron York has an excellent article in National Review online about all the things that are NOT currently known about the Wilson/Plame/Rove affair. One question which I have–even if “Valerie Plame” had her name blown, why could she not lay low for a year or two, dye her hair, get a new passport as Jane Johnson, marketing executive for Widgets, Inc., and go abroad? of course, her decision to put her face into the magazines may have cut off that option.

  2. Just Me says:

    The story seems to ignore that in Wilson’s book he mentions that neither he or his wife had been stationed overseas since 1997.

    The law states that a covert agent is:

    (4) The term “covert agent” means—
    (A) a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency or a present or retired member of the Armed Forces assigned to duty with an intelligence agency—

    (i) whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and

    (ii) who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States; or

    (B) a United States citizen whose intelligence relationship to the United States is classified information, and—

    (i) who resides and acts outside the United States as an agent of, or informant or source of operational assistance to, an intelligence agency, or

    (ii) who is at the time of the disclosure acting as an agent of, or informant to, the foreign counterintelligence or foreign counterterrorism components of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; or

    Doesn’t matter what he told Wolf, from his own book he seems to indicate she was not a covert agent within the time frame to meet the requirements of the law.

  3. scrapiron says:

    Plame has worked at CIA Hq. for years. She came and went out the main gate in a POV. I’ll make you a bet that every country that has spies in the U.S. has pictures of her along with every other employee. Like the retired CIA supervisor stated, you can come in from the field and work in Hq., but you can’t leave Hq. and work in the field. She has not been ‘undercover’ since she married a man who thrives on seeing his face in the news and bragged about his wife working for the CIA. I know there’s some common sense left in this country but it’s getting harder and harder to find it. Funny how fast people forget (most by choice) about Leaky Leahy, Socks Berger, Kerry, Kennedy, Dodd, Levin, Durbin, Rockefeller, Wyden and Dusty Reid. They all leaked documents that actually caused harm and could (and some has) result in the death of American Soldiers.

  4. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Did Joe Wilson think no one would look in to who sent him to Niger when he lied that the Vice President sent him? Wilson lied about who sent him, he lied about what he found (or did he even look) and he lied when he said it was not his wife who recommended him. I want to know what she was doing recommending someone who was opposed to finding the truth or incapable of telling it. Trying to blame Carl Rove is a typical Democrat trick. It will not work.

  5. Ragnar says:

    A Secret Known, A Cover Blown,, written by former CIA Agent Larry C. Johnson characterizes both Ms. WIlson’s status and the effect that this matter has had on the entire “security community.” It is an embarassment that you continue to parse words and find reasons to defend what is indefenseable. Are you so partisian that you cannot see error when it occurs? What Rove and Novak did are an embarassment to all mainstream, USA loving Americans.

  6. Ragnar says:

    In particular, there are now few, if any, limits to what conservative politicians can get away with: The faithful will follow the twists and turns of the party line with a loyalty that would have pleased the Comintern.
    Paul Krugman

  7. Lt bell says:

    The absurdity is astounding –
    let met see – Joyner – are you sa=ying that its OK to out an American that is working undercover-
    because some Lawyer of a christian plays words with the semantics of the BS?????????????????

    Never mind the reality — well this is how Bush got elected is it not-

    You people are not only un-american you are anti-american

  8. James Joyner says:

    Ragnar: The Johnson column really doesn’t say much of anything. That Plame had not worked overseas for several years at the point of the Novak column and that she was working AT CIA HEADQUARTERS IN A DESK JOB is undisputed.

  9. RiverRat says:

    It appears that the only value of covert status for Plame as an energy consultant with Brewster-Jennings was to make Democratic political contributions without disclosing that she worded for CIA in Langley since 1997