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Suffocating the CIA Agent Outing Scandal
T he scandal known in Washington, DC as "The Leak" is not an easy story to understand. Most people I have talked to have only a vague sense of the basic facts: that the Bush administration tried to get revenge against a diplomat critical of its war effort by publicly revealing that his wife was an undercover CIA agent.
But this summary leaves key questions unanswered. Why would the White House go after one of the government's own CIA agents? Why does this seemingly obscure violation really matter? What has happened since the scandal broke in the early fall?
Getting to the bottom of these questions is important because "The Leak" remains one of the most revealing glimpses available into the darker side of how the Bush administration works—how it has propagated a fraudulent case for war, and launched a fiercely partisan attack on dissenting viewpoints. It is also important because the mainstream media has proved distressingly acquiescent as the White House has worked to "suffocate the story."
If you didn't really understand the scandal before, it is worth taking another look.
In February 2002, at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney, the CIA sent former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Central Africa to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Niger in the late 1990s. Wilson found that the allegations were bogus and delivered a detailed report saying so to his superiors.
This report was either misplaced or ignored. The idea that Iraq might have nuclear capabilities was too politically convenient to be dropped by an Administration pushing for war. The uranium charges made their way into Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. When later exposed, they became the famous "16 words" emblematic of the White House's use of faulty intelligence to sell its invasion of Iraq.
Joseph Wilson stayed quiet through most of the controversy. However, after senior administration officials persisted in denying that they had prior knowledge that the intelligence about Niger was bad, Wilson published a July 6 op-ed in the New York Times discussing his trip and his report. "I gave them months to correct the record," Wilson explained to New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh, referring to the White House, "but they kept on lying."
The Bush administration was furious at Wilson's whistle-blowing. Its operatives set out to paint the ambassador as incompetent and politically motivated. Ed Gillespie, the head of the Republican National Committee, attacked Wilson as a partisan Democrat because he had contributed funds to Al Gore's 2000 election campaign. Gillespie neglected to mention that Wilson had also donated to George W. Bush's campaign, which he briefly supported. Moreover, Wilson had served George Bush Sr. as a special envoy to Iraq before the first Gulf War, earning high praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Far worse than Gillespie's distortions, two "senior administration officials" provided a half dozen journalists with the information that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent working on weapons of mass destruction. Only one of the journalists, conservative columnist Robert Novak, reported this fact, noting in his July 14 dispatch that the two sources "told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate."
A scandal was born. Revealing the identity of an undercover intelligence operative is a federal crime, specifically prohibited in the 1982 Identities Protection Act. Two senior administration officials are guilty.
But why would the White House make the information about Wilson's wife part of their smear campaign? One implication is that, by revealing Plame's identity, they were trying to suggest that Wilson was not really qualified to investigate the Niger question and that he was only selected because of his personal relationship with someone at the CIA. Another explanation is that the senior officials were motivated by spite alone—that they were looking for any way possible to hurt Wilson and they knew that damaging his wife's career would accomplish this.
A third possibility is that the officials believed that going after a CIA agent might send an especially powerful signal to an important target audience: disgruntled intelligence officers. It is well known that many intelligence analysts are furious about how unverified reports about Saddam's weapons were "stove-piped" to top administration officials in violation of accepted vetting procedures and then presented to the public as established facts.
After the Wilson op-ed, it is plausible that White House political operatives felt they needed to deliver a message to others with inside information about faulty intelligence.
Supporting this view, retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern contends that the senior officials' "objective was to create strong disincentive for those who might be tempted to follow the courageous example set by Joseph Wilson in citing the president's own words to show that our country went to war on a lie."
Whatever the combination of reasons, the outing of Valerie Plame as part of a personal attack on a critic of the Administration is a shocking offense.
The controversy first gained widespread attention in the last days of September, after the Washington Post reported that an official investigation was underway. The mainstream media attention proved short-lived, however.
In the days after the Post published its scoop, several conservatives scrambled to belittle the story's significance. For his part, Robert Novak, the columnist who first reported the damaging information leaked to him by two "senior administration officials," tried to minimize the affair by forwarding the incorrect assertion that Plame was merely a pencil-pushing "analyst" and not really a sensitive operative.
Plame, in fact, worked undercover with a network that monitored the international transfer of illegal weaponry. According to retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Plame's outing will "burn her entire network of agents reporting on weapons of mass destruction, put those agents in serious jeopardy and destroy her ability at the peak of her career to address this top-priority issue."
In spite of the pundits' efforts, focus on the scandal intensified for a brief period. Faced with growing public pressure, President Bush professed deep concern about catching the criminal in his White House. At the same time, he made shrugging comments foreshadowing the investigation's failure. "I don't know whether we are going to find out the senior administration official," he said. "This is a large Administration and there are a lot of senior administration officials, and I don't have any idea."
With some Democrats calling for an independent counsel to investigate, Washington conservatives were put in an odd situation. Even while many denied the seriousness of the story, these partisans also had to argue that the Administration would take the investigation of its own leak very seriously indeed, precluding the necessity of an outside investigator. Who, in particular, did they claim would be the best person to conduct an honest, thorough, and impartial investigation of the Bush administration's crimes? John Ashcroft.
President Bush said, "I am absolutely confident the Justice Department will do a good job." Many other observers, however, argued that the deep connections between Ashcroft and key White House personnel like Karl Rove presents a clear conflict of interests.
Furthermore, Senator Charles Schumer noted that the Department of Justice made errors in the critical first week of the investigation. Attorneys waited four days between opening their investigation and asking the White House to preserve all relevant evidence, creating a window in which significant evidence could have been destroyed.
While mainstream press interest in the affair exploded in the early fall, coverage faded fast, in part, no doubt, because the outing of the CIA agent does not reduce well into a 15-second summary. A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers shows that the name Valerie Plame was mentioned in 266 articles in October, most in the first weeks after the scandal broke. But by November, the story had nearly vanished, with only 10 articles covering the scandal the whole month.
It appeared, moreover, that the Bush administration was speeding the process. The Financial Times writes, "While allowing the official investigation into the leak to progress, the White House has done an extraordinarily effective job of suffocating the story," refusing to provide the press with the type of updates that the Clinton administration regularly made available during the Whitewater investigation. "We have let the earth-movers roll in over this one," one senior White House official told the Times on the condition of anonymity.
In the last days of 2003, new developments in the Plame investigation attracted some fresh media attention to the case, but also highlighted the need for continued public pressure. In a positive twist, Ashcroft relented to criticism and disqualified himself from involvement in the investigation. Instead, a Justice Department deputy will oversee the activity of a new "special counsel," U.S. attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
The New York Times applauded the move in a December 21 editorial, "The Right Thing, At Last." Others were more skeptical, however. Howard Dean argued that the move was "too little, too late." Ray McGovern added that the "maneuver should not obscure the fact that in naming Fitzgerald, who remains under the authority of Ashcroft's deputy, the Bush Administration has rejected the only appropriate course—naming a complete outsider to be special counsel."
The Times noted an "eggreiously long delay," questioned whether the Justice Department "will give Mr. Fitzgerald true operational independence," and noted, "we may never know what damage was caused" by two months of Ashcroft stonewalling.
It remains to be seen whether the new special investigator will be able or willing to reconstruct an effictive investigation. But regardless of whether the special counsel maintains the previous level of secrecy, the public deserves critical press coverage of a story the White House would like to rebury.
Mark Engler is a writer and activist based in New York City. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.