State Memo Did Not Indicate Plame’s Role Was Secret

The State Department memo seen by most as the smoking gun in the Valerie Plame leak investigation contained no hint that she was a covert operative, Josh Gerstein reports.

Contrary to published reports, a State Department memorandum at the center of the investigation into the leak of the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, appears to offer no particular indication that Ms. Plame’s role at the agency was classified or covert. The memo, drafted by the then head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and addressed to the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, was carried aboard Air Force One as President Bush departed for Africa in July 2003. A declassified version of the document was obtained by The New York Sun on Saturday.


“In a February 19, 2002, meeting convened by Valerie Wilson, a CIA WMD manager, and the wife of Joe Wilson, he previewed his plans and rationale for going to Niger,” the memo from the State Department intelligence chief, Carl Ford Jr., said. Mr. Ford also drafted an earlier version of the memo, addressed to an undersecretary of state, Marc Grossman. Mr. Grossman apparently sought the information about Mr. Wilson’s trip after receiving inquiries from the then chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, I. Lewis Libby. Mr. Libby was indicted last year on charges he perjured himself and obstructed justice during the investigation. He has pleaded not guilty. While the indictment alleges that he discussed Ms. Plame with reporters, neither Mr. Libby nor any other person has been charged with illegally disclosing the CIA employee’s identity.

The gist of Mr. Ford’s memo has been previously reported in news accounts, but it has not been quoted from directly. In addition, the early leaks about the memo were selective, perhaps deliberately so. A Wall Street Journal article on July 19, 2005, citing an unnamed person familiar with the memo, reported that the memo “made clear that information identifying an agent and her role in her husband’s intelligence gathering mission was sensitive and shouldn’t be shared.” The Journal account said the paragraph discussing Ms. Plame’s role in her husband’s trip was marked in a way to indicate it shouldn’t be disclosed.
A story the following day in the Washington Post, “Plame’s Identity Marked as Secret,” said correctly that the paragraph carried the mark “S,” signifying the middle level of three major tiers of classification.

Not noted in the previous press reports was the fact that six of the seven paragraphs in the memo are marked “secret,” while only one appears to mention Ms. Plame. In addition, virtually every paragraph in the attached supporting documents from the State Department about alleged Iraqi uranium procurement in Niger carries the “secret” designation. With most, if not all, of the Niger-related documents marked “secret” in a host of places, there is no particular reason a reader would think the classification was derived from Ms. Plame’s status or involvement.

A fair point, although one that has a dual edge. It’s often the case that it is not clear to a reader what elements of a classified document render it classified at a particular level. Indeed, it is sometimes the case that no particular bit of information in a document would itself be classified but that, taken in its totality, the package has been deemed sufficiently sensitive to merit classification. Regardless, however, the procedures for handling classified material requires authorized recepients of the information to treat the entirety of the received information as classified at highest level of the document or briefing unless otherwise authorized.

Hat tip: Jason Smith

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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. McGehee says:

    …there is no particular reason a reader would think the classification was derived from Ms. Plame�s status or involvement.

    Other than, y’know, a maniacal obsession with destroying George W. Bush.

  2. legion says:

    Or that information in a paragraph marked (S) is, in toto, considered classified Secret until formally declassified by a competent authority. But rules aren’t for Republicans…

  3. James Joyner says:

    legion: Right. I thought I covered that?

  4. John Burgess says:

    Documents in their entirety are classified at and to be treated as classified to the highest level of any single classified element they contain, unless otherwise noted. Thus, a four-paragraph document with one Secret paragraph is classified at the Secret level. The other three paragraphs, while not classified themselves, must be treated as Secret.


    In an effort to prevent needless or excessive classification, sometime in the late 80s a new rule, requiring paragraph-by-paragraph identification was instituted. That four-paragraph document would now have three paragraphs tagged (U) and one tagged (S).

    The entire document remains Secret, but the individual (U) paragraphs may be further disseminated. The (S) paragraph may not be disseminated and the document in its entirety may not.

    If the drafter of the subject document was doing his/her job correctly, then the pertinent paragraph about Plame was deemed Secret–it was tagged, after all. But lots of people simply tag every paragraph–inappropriately–with the highest classification of any paragraph automatically.

    The legal assumption, however, is that it was correctly tagged Secret.

    There are other tags used for documents–like “No Foreign Distribution” or “No Contractor Distribution”, but they don’t come into play here, apparently…

  5. legion says:

    You did, I just didn’t think McG got that far 🙂

    And on a less snarky note, what with all the phone calls between the WH and reporters to try and feed this disinfo out to the public, could these jokers not make _one_ phone call to the CIA?

    All it’s gonna take is a few more GOP Congresscritters to get pissed off about being lied to & used, and there’ll be a full-on demand/subpoena for the transcripts of the Bush-Cheney siamese twin deposition…

  6. legion says:

    Exactly. If Libby can prove he was directed by Cheney or Bush to release certain info, with the implication that it was declassified by executive order, then he may save his own bacon. But at the cost of putting the lie to all the ‘Lady Macbeth’ condemnations from Bush in the intervening time. If he can’t, then he goes to prison. And if he inadvertenly dropped Plame’s ID while releasing _different_ info, he still goes to prison.

    It all depends on whether Libby is falling on his sword or selling out his bosses. WWSD? (What Will Scooter Do?)

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft says:

    Legion, please pay attention. Scooter Libby is not charged with revealing who the liar Wilson’s wife worked for, he is being charged with perjury. The President is the competent authority in this case, in spite of what those with lesser credentials believe. Legion, I truly hope your avocation does not require the competent grasp of facts. No insult intended.

  8. legion says:

    I am quite aware of the Libby investigation. But if you’ll glance back to the title of James’ original topic, the subject is whether or not the release of Plame’s identity was a crime in and of itself. Surely you would agree that this question must be answered before charges can be brought against anyone, no?

    I personally believe it was; even though the President does have the authority to declassify information, he cannot do so by simple verbal fiat – it must be documented. The NIE info was publically declassified a full 10 days after Libby’s reporter round-robin. The State Dept memo containing the Plame reference is a seperate item. If Plame’s name wasn’t tabbed out as being classified in the memo, that’s a major failure of the writer, but it doesn’t necessarily clear Libby, or anyone else.

    By the way, your hypocritical use of the term ‘liar’ to describe Joe Wilson, deserved or not, clashes badly with your close of ‘no insult intended’. If you’re going to be a jerk, be a jerk. Don’t be a jerk and tell me you’re being nice.

  9. Sen C fing says:

    Research. Maybe a Congreeman was on the intelligence committee knew a wife who started a research bureau at Peace Corps. Maybe Wilson is an RPCV. Maybe he worked with Morraccon intelligence.

  10. John Burgess says:

    And maybe, just maybe, any number of reporters may have had dinner with–perhaps even at the house of–the Wilsons! It’s not like Joe Wilson was shy in the presence of media or anything…

  11. Hal says:

    “It�s not like Joe Wilson was shy in the presence of media or anything”

    Exactly. And strangely enough all those crying out it was common knowledge have quite a different story under oath (or STFU when the possibility of having to testify under oath appoaches).

    See Mitchell, Andrea for a darn good example. Or that loco general who claimed Wilson bragged about it in the CNN green room.