Plame’s Identity Marked As Secret

Plame’s Identity Marked As Secret (WaPo, A1)

A classified State Department memorandum central to a federal leak investigation contained information about CIA officer Valerie Plame in a paragraph marked “(S)” for secret, a clear indication that any Bush administration official who read it should have been aware the information was classified, according to current and former government officials. Plame — who is referred to by her married name, Valerie Wilson, in the memo — is mentioned in the second paragraph of the three-page document, which was written on June 10, 2003, by an analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), according to a source who described the memo to The Washington Post.

The paragraph identifying her as the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was clearly marked to show that it contained classified material at the “secret” level, two sources said. The CIA classifies as “secret” the names of officers whose identities are covert, according to former senior agency officials.

Anyone reading that paragraph should have been aware that it contained secret information, though that designation was not specifically attached to Plame’s name and did not describe her status as covert, the sources said. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a federal official to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert CIA official if the person knows the government is trying to keep it secret.

Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The law is aimed at protecting the identity of officers undercover overseas, something Plame/Wilson had not been for well beyond the statutory period of five years.

Almost all of the memo is devoted to describing why State Department intelligence experts did not believe claims that Saddam Hussein had in the recent past sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Only two sentences in the seven-sentence paragraph mention Wilson’s wife.

The memo was delivered to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on July 7, 2003, as he headed to Africa for a trip with President Bush aboard Air Force One. Plame was unmasked in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak seven days later.


Karl Rove, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, has testified that he learned Plame’s name from Novak a few days before telling another reporter she worked at the CIA and played a role in her husband’s mission, according to a lawyer familiar with Rove’s account. Rove has also testified that the first time he saw the State Department memo was when “people in the special prosecutor’s office” showed it to him, said Robert Luskin, his attorney.


The memo was drafted June 10, 2003, for Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, who asked to be brought up to date on INR’s opposition to the White House view that Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa. The description of Wilson’s wife and her role in the Feb. 19, 2002, meeting at the CIA was considered “a footnote” in a background paragraph in the memo, according to an official who was aware of the process.

It’s rather unlikely that Rove or Libby saw a memo for the eyes of an Undersecretary of State, let alone read the footnotes. It’s also unclear to me why her name would be classified “Secret,” given that she had not worked in a covert capacity or overseas for years. It’s rather odd for the fact that someone who works at CIA headquarters under their own name to be classified.

Of course, that won’t stop the conspiracy theorists. Kos and John of AmericaBlog think this thwarts the administration’s plan to divert attention from the Rove affair by rushing the appointment of John Roberts to the Supreme Court. Because, goodness knows, trying to get a new Justice to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, who is often the deciding vote against their interests, in place by October would not be something the Administration was interested in.

Juan Cole takes the story at face value:

That it says “Secret” on it singlehandedly gets rid of all kinds of false assertions of the Republican noise machine, that Plame’s identity as an undercover operative was widely known, etc. […] On the other hand, that Pincus and VandeHei have to go to so much trouble to prove that the identity of a CIA operative working on Weapons of Mass Destruction was secret and shouldn’t have been blown by Rove is a tribute of sorts to Rove the master of spin and propaganda.

But these things are not mutually exclusive. Something can be simultaneously classified and widely known through open soures. Agencies are quick to classify and slow to declassify. Doing archival research, I’ve found such things as press releases for the next day’s paper classified as high as “Top Secret.” Even the likes of Andrea Mitchell have said that Plame’s employment by the CIA was well known.

At any rate, Kevin Drum is likely right: The most interesting thing here is that the State Department thought the Wilson trip was unnecessary, since the Niger-yellowcake story had already been discounted.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. scrapiron says:

    I wonder if the former CIA agents that came out in support of Plame were part of the group (no way plame was acting alone) that developed a plan (that sent Wilson to Africa) to undercut the Presidents foreign policy instead of doing their job and supporting the Presidents policies. Want to bet they won’t be the subject of a Justice Department investigation to determine if they used their CIA positions to undercut the U.S. position and aid the enemy.

  2. SoloD says:

    But the fact that her named was marked secret is significant, no? At least in the minds of the CIA and the State Dep’t her identity was not to be blown. Whatever the legal standard (and there are a lot of opinions out there about that) it does raise the heat ethically on whether her name should have been exposed.

  3. mike says:

    This whole Rove “scandal” is the best thing that would happen to Bush b/c now no one is talking about Iraq. Now the press can move onto the SC nominee.

  4. Jim Jones says:

    The Rove “scandal” is just a stepping stone to the big scandal: the selling of the Iraq war.

  5. James Joyner says:


    Perhaps. We don’t know whether Rove saw the memo. He claims that he first heard the info from Novak.

    The “crime” being investigation is violation of USC Title 50 Section 421 (Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources).

    Disclosure of information by persons having or having had access to classified information that identifies covert agent Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.


    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

    It’s not clear Plame was “covert” under the language of the law or whether Rove got the info via classified means.

  6. Bindare2 says:

    Am I missing something? Why can’t the CIA, between their Legal Department and their Human Resources Department, tell us what they considered Valerie Plumes’ status to have been. Was she in their eyes considered a covert agent under the law or not. Are they prevented by law from just clearing up this contraversey or does it serve some other purpose of theirs to embarass the administration.

  7. SoloD says:

    On the legal front, there are three steps in determining the Plame status. First, the CIA’s referral to the Justice Department; second, the grand jury determination; finally, a trial judge/jury verdict. We are only between steps one and two right now. And frankly we just don’t have enough information to know what the grand jury knows.

    But on the political/ethical front (and should those two ever be put together?) the news that the Plame’s identity was marked secret certainly makes the WH look worse in peddling the rumor that she was the only reason that Wilson was sent to Niger.

  8. htom says:

    (S) IIRC, this paragraph is secret and (S) name1 is classified secret while name2 is not (although name2’s association with the contents of this paragraph are.)

    Now was her name classified, or not?

  9. Jim Henley says:

    It’s rather odd for the fact that someone who works at CIA headquarters under their own name to be classified.

    James, this is simply not correct. It’s not odd at all. Clandestine Services employees rotate through Langley all the time. It’s not remotely “odd” for a clandestine employee to do a tour at headquarters in between overseas assignments.

    Also, thanks for posting the statute. I note that most apologists gloss this section

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

    as saying “stationed” rather than “served.” It seems likely that the actual language would mean Plame was covered if she took any working trips abroad in the five years prior to July 2003, so long as she represented herself, on Agency direction, as other than an Agency employee.

    I’ll bet she did, and that’s why the Agency made the criminal referral, and why Fitzgerald’s grand jury has continued to pursue the case, with unstinting support from the Judge’s he’s had to get subpoena and detention approvals from.

    (Fun fact: Agency employees who are overt MUST tell the truth about their place of employ, by policy. That way they don’t ruin things for the real covert employees.)

  10. James Joyner says:


    That sounds about right. My understanding, though, is that Plame/Wilson has been serving at Langley continuously since 1997 and that the NOC role pretty much ended when she married Joe Wilson, which made it hard for her to fly under the radar.

    My guess at this point is still that Rove heard that she was CIA from Novak or other than from seeing it on a classified doc and that he did not knowingly “out” a covert agent and would not have done such a thing. Even if one attributes such low ethics to him as to risk a covert op’s life for political expediency–which I don’t–it’s hard to fathom his doing it for the rather trivial purpose of pointing out that Joe Wilson’s Niger trip was set up by his wife.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    James, re your first paragraph, the law doesn’t just cover NOCs. It applies to officers with official cover too. Most of the narratives I’ve seen show Plame as transitioning from non-official cover to official cover, but not, as of June 2003, to overt status. Plame was officially, IIRC, a State Department employee from 1997-2003. That’s covert status.

    (In the old days, “The Department of the Army” was the employer of record for a lot of the Agency’s Washington-area employees on the clandestine side. If you saw, say, a wedding announcement in the Post for someone in The Department of the Army, there was a good chance you were looking at a CIA officer.)

  12. Rick Moran says:

    But the fact that her named was marked secret is significant, no?

    NO! In fact, Pincus says in his piece that Wilson’s name was not marked secret; that the paragraph that contained her name was marked “secret.”

    In talking about Wilson’s trip to Niger (which was secret until Wilson revealed it) the memo was dealing with sensitive material. There simply is no context in the Pincus piece so its impossible to say why her name was in the memo in the first place.

  13. James Joyner says:

    From an October 2003 WaPo piece:

    For the past several years, she has served as an operations officer working as a weapons proliferation analyst. She told neighbors, friends and even some of her CIA colleagues that she was an “energy consultant.” She lived behind a facade even after she returned from abroad. It included a Boston front company named Brewster-Jennings & Associates, which she listed as her employer on a 1999 form in Federal Election Commission records for her $1,000 contribution to Al Gore’s presidential primary campaign.

    So she was clearly still playing the covert role. How thin the disguise was is, of course, another matter.

  14. McGehee says:

    (In the old days, “The Department of the Army” was the employer of record for a lot of the Agency’s Washington-area employees on the clandestine side. If you saw, say, a wedding announcement in the Post for someone in The Department of the Army, there was a good chance you were looking at a CIA officer.)

    Boy, that sounds like serious deep cover there. It seems to me if your average Beltway cocktail-party attendee can figure out something like that, it’s kind of silly to think professional agents of other countries can’t figure it out.

    But of course, this is Karl Rove we’re talking about — and that makes all the difference.


  15. Anderson says:

    Even if one attributes such low ethics to him as to risk a covert op’s life for political expediency—which I don’t—it’s hard to fathom his doing it for the rather trivial purpose of pointing out that Joe Wilson’s Niger trip was set up by his wife.

    Hard to fathom, unless you’re familiar with Rove’s utter lack of principle.

    The theory I always found plausible is that outing Plame was a twofer: one, it was meant to cast doubt on Wilson, & two, it punished him by hurting his wife’s career. To amoral politicos like Rove (not a word I use lightly; Cheney, for ex., has morals of a kind), it’s perfectly logical. Politics is the first & last test of values. N.b. the LAT story on Rove’s going ballistic on Wilson; challenged by some WH folk, his rationale was “he’s a Democrat.”

  16. When I was on active duty, I personally wrote documents that, when written, were classied Top Secret and subsequently completely declassified, once in only 24 hours.

    But the original, marked copy was never released; the information was reproduced on clean sheet and that was released. It’s not surprising that you’ve found public-domain info still archived on copies marked secret or TS or whatever.

  17. capt joe says:

    NOC Identities and such are normally code word protected for purposes of compartmentalization. Most code word stuff sits above TS. I have rarely seen anything at the secret level. That is why it seems more likely that her status was reduced if secret is the only classification to be applied

  18. Brett says:

    I don’t see why you have such faith in Rove, James. We’re talking about the most powerful advisor of the most powerful politician in the world, in his most powerful role as commander-in-chief. It doesn’t strike me as hard to believe that this situation might have gone to his head.

    And even if your assumption is that Rove is basically a decent guy – hard to imagine from someone who is willing to start a whisper campaign that an opponent was a pedophile, actually – even if that’s your assumption, he has still been very careless with sensitive information, and people have gone to jail for less, apparently. Plus, the “I heard it from Novak” story may get blown out of the water soon enough.

  19. Bill Bacon says:

    Anderson, having Plame’s cover blown couldn’t have hurt her career any more than marrying Wilson had already done. I would imagine its virtually impossible to maintain NOC as the wife of a senior Foreign Service officer – and impossible to do so as the wife of a politically-appointed Ambassador, which was Wilson’s next government position/stepping stone.