July 14, 2006
columnist Robert D. Novak’s confirmation that White House political
adviser Karl Rove was one of his sources for identifying Valerie Plame
as a CIA officer leaves unresolved two other troubling questions – who
passed this sensitive information to Rove and why was Rove cut in on
such a discrete intelligence secret.
A key national security principle for dealing with
narrow life-or-death secrets, such as the identity of an undercover CIA
officer, is compartmentalization. It’s not just whether officials have
the appropriate level of security clearance; they also must have a "need
The fact that political guru Rove was a source on
Plame’s identity for at least two reporters – columnist Novak and Time
magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper – suggests that George W. Bush’s
White House had put political damage control ahead of national security.
In July 2003, Plame’s husband, former Ambassador
Joseph Wilson, criticized Bush for "twisting" intelligence to justify
the invasion of Iraq. Striking back, the White House sought to discredit
Wilson by claiming that Wilson had taken a fact-finding trip to Africa
partly arranged by his wife.
When that claim and Plame’s identity were published
in a Novak column also in July 2003, her career as an undercover CIA
officer tracking weapons of mass destruction was destroyed. Those events
eventually led to the appointment of special prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald, who reportedly has decided not to indict Rove over the leak.
Still, there’s the underlying issue of how the
White House decides which secrets must be protected and which ones can
be bandied about to discredit critics. Bush has angrily denounced press
disclosures about controversial programs that involve spying on
Americans or subjecting detainees to torture in secret prisons, but he
has continued to defend and employ Rove despite his role in outing Plame.
Among intelligence professionals, the exposure of a
clandestine CIA officer is considered possibly the worst kind of leak.
It jeopardizes not only the personal safety and career of the undercover
officer, but it puts at risk any foreign citizens who may have assisted
the spying operation.
Plame also operated in a highly sensitive role
under "non-official cover," that is, a spy working outside the
protection of a U.S. embassy. NOCs face extreme danger if caught spying
in a hostile country.
Some of Bush’s defenders have argued that Plame’s
assignment to CIA headquarters meant there was no need to maintain her
secret cover. But that argument misses the point that many CIA employees
who work out of CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, are still on
covert status, as was Plame.
Also, the justification for Plame’s exposure – that
she had played a minor role in her husband’s fact-finding trip to Niger
to investigate suspicions that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium
– represented a lame excuse. By July 2003, it was clear, too, that
Wilson’s findings, casting doubt on the Niger suspicions, were correct.
Nevertheless, after Wilson wrote an Op-Ed article
for the New York Times on July 6, 2003, criticizing Bush’s use of the
Niger allegations despite the evidence to the contrary, the White House
– led by Vice President Dick Cheney – conducted a smear campaign against
In tearing down Wilson, the White House also
exposed Plame. The leak of Plame’s identity and its publication by Novak
on July 14, 2003, apparently was intended to undercut Wilson by
suggesting his trip was a case of nepotism or that he was unmanly
because his wife had a hand in arranging his unpaid assignment.
It’s also possible that the White House simply was
punishing a critic by destroying his wife’s career. After disclosure of
her identity, Plame’s CIA career was ruined and she resigned from the
government. Her cover company, Brewster Jennings & Associates, also was
exposed and her counter-proliferation mission wrecked.
Even to this day, Bush has done nothing to
discourage his political supporters from denigrating Wilson, who gets
routinely mocked in the right-wing news media as a flaky self-promoter
or a partisan Democrat.
In a new column – on July 12, 2006 – Novak broke
three years of near-total silence on his role in the Plame case. Though
Novak still refused to identify his initial source for the Plame
information, he did reveal that his second source was Rove, "whom I
interpret as confirming my primary source’s information." [Washington
Post, July 12, 2006]
A year ago, Newsweek reported that Time’s Cooper
also had learned about Plame’s identity from Rove. According to an
internal Time e-mail, Cooper informed his editor that Rove offered a
"big warning" not to "get too far out on Wilson" and that "KR said" the
Niger trip was authorized by "wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the
agency (CIA) on wmd issues." [Newsweek,
July 18, 2005, issue]
Though the evidence is clear that Rove helped
disseminate the news about Plame’s identity, prosecutor Fitzgerald
declined to seek prosecutions under laws that protect the identities of
CIA officers or national security secrets.
In October 2005, Fitzgerald did indict Cheney’s
chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, who was another source for journalists
about Plame, but the charges related to perjury, lying to the FBI and
obstruction of justice, not the underlying offense of exposing a CIA
officer. Libby has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in
In not indicting Rove, Fitzgerald apparently judged
that Rove’s testimony – while not entirely accurate – didn’t rise to the
level of perjury.
But there remains that troubling question: Why did
Bush bring political operative Rove into the compartment on the secret
identity of a CIA officer?
The fact that political adviser Rove was one of the
busy bees cross-pollinating this sensitive information to the Washington
press corps is evidence that Bush indeed did put politics and his image
ahead of protecting legitimate national security secrets.
Rove had no reason to know who Plame was, except as
part of a public relations attack against her husband and as political
damage control for Bush. Rove’s only real need to know would appear to
be for an assignment to punish a messenger for delivering some unwanted
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'