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Did the Bush administration identify a CIA operative because it was mad at her husband?

By DAVID BALLINGRUD
Published August 10, 2003

"I can be a tough son of a b--," former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson said last week.

Good thing.

While settling scores and clumsy intimidation are nothing new in Washington, what happened to Wilson and his family may set a new low standard.

Anonymous officials in the Bush administration, Wilson said in an interview last week, have managed to damage or even endanger his wife, compromise national security and perhaps break the law - all at the same time.

Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, reportedly is a CIA agent, working in the clandestine Directorate of Operations on weapons of mass destruction issues.

She had been undercover, but she is no longer. Last month she was "outed," evidently by unnamed senior officials in the Bush administration who revealed her name to conservative columnist Robert Novak.

Why?

Wilson says it's because he spoke openly and honestly about the rationale for the war in Iraq, and in doing so made trouble for the president. He thinks he was slapped, hard, as a warning to others in government who might contemplate doing the same.

"It wasn't done to intimidate me; I had already told my story," he said. "But it's pretty clear it is intended to intimidate others who might come forward."

In this case, he said, they tried to bully the wrong man.

"I don't cower, I can't be intimidated . . . I faced down Saddam Hussein for seven months," said Wilson, a career foreign service officer and, in 1990, charge d'affaires for the first President Bush in Baghdad.

"If they had bothered to check with the current president's father, they would have known that."

A report ignored?

The Bush administration's uranium headache reportedly began with a question from Vice President Dick Cheney to a CIA briefer.

Cheney wondered about a report of possible sale of uranium to Iraq by the African nation of Niger. Presumably the uranium was intended for use in developing nuclear weapons, and the vice president wanted it checked out.

The CIA turned to Wilson, who, in February 2002, traveled to Niger to investigate. "I went with the same skepticism I would have about any rumor that comes over the transom, but I kept an open mind," he said last week.

Whether or not his wife worked for the CIA, Wilson seemed a logical choice for the job. As charge d'affaires in Baghdad, he had been the last American diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein. He later served as the first President Bush's ambassador to Gabon, and later still helped direct Africa policy for the National Security Council.

Wilson said he spent eight days in Niger meeting with dozens of people - current and former government officials and people working in the country's uranium business. It did not take long, he said, to conclude that it was "highly doubtful" that any such transaction had ever taken place. The structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, he said, would make such a transfer exceedingly difficult.

Wilson returned to Washington, made an oral report to the CIA and to the State Department's African affairs bureau. "I thought the Niger matter was settled and went back to my life," he would later explain.

Yet the rumor of an Iraq-Niger uranium connection refused to die. It resurfaced last September, in a British dossier on Iraqi WMD, and again on Jan. 28, in the now-famous 16 words from President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the president said.

It wasn't the sole argument for the war that would begin three months later, but it was a powerful one, tapping into the fears of millions of Americans. Who could argue that a despot with nuclear weapons should not be stopped?

The uranium story, however, has been unraveling ever since. Shortly before the war the International Atomic Energy Agency labeled documents supporting the sale crude forgeries. Postwar scrutiny uncovered the facts of Wilson's visit to Niger in 2002, but without identifying him. And on July 6, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his trip and what he found.

"Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq?" Wilson wrote.

"Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war, I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Reaction was swift. On July 7 the White House conceded that the uranium claim should not have been included in the State of the Union address. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was outed a week later.

Exposing an undercover operative

In a July 14 column examining the Niger fiasco in some detail, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak wrote, "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Novak told Newsday that "two senior administration officials" told him that it was Plame who suggested sending her husband, Wilson, to Niger. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

Why he named her remains unclear. And whether he knew he was exposing an undercover CIA agent is not clear. Novak declined to be interviewed for this story.

"I have no idea whether Novak knew or not," said Wilson. "But I can't see any reason whatsoever for using my wife's name in his column. It did not advance the story at all."

Wilson says it is not even clear what supposed sin Novak's sources were hinting at.

"I can't imagine what they trying to suggest," he said. "Maybe that nepotism was somehow involved in my getting the assignment? That doesn't make any sense. We not talking about a trip to Nassau here, and I was only paid expenses."

Plame has declined requests for interviews, but Wilson said she is "doing fine."

Wilson will not confirm that his wife was or is a CIA operative, though Newsday has reported that a senior intelligence official confirmed it. Specifically, Plame was reported to be a Directorate of Operations undercover officer. (The New York Times reported Friday that Plame is "known to friends as an energy industry analyst.")

"But," Wilson said, "hypothetically, I will say that if what Novak asserts is true, then laws were broken. And if it's true, they (the administration) took off the board an important national security asset (Plame) in order to protect some yo-yo's political concerns."

He said he believes that political operatives in the White House gave his wife's name to Novak, and he thinks he knows who they are. But he's "not ready, yet" to name them. He hopes an investigation - by the FBI, Congress or both - will take care of that.

Criticism of the disclosure has been sharp, though it is not clear what will happen next, if anything.

"Frivolous and irresponsible," said W. Patrick Lang, former director of Middle East analysis at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"Vile . . . highly, highly dishonorable," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., vice chairman of the Senate's Intelligence Committee.

In a July 25 letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, demanded a criminal investigation.

"Leaking the name of a CIA agent is tantamount to putting a gun to that agent's head," Schumer said. "It compromises her safety, the safety of her loved ones, not to mention those in her network and other operatives she may deal with."

The administration has said little.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied that anyone in the White House had been authorized to leak Plame's undercover status, saying, "That is not the way this White House operates."

Asked if he were ruling out administration involvement, McClellan said: "I'm saying no one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature . . ."

Keeping secret agents alive

In 1975, Richard Welch, the CIA's station chief in Athens, stepped out of his car outside his residence and answered yes when a voice asked, "Mr. Welch?"

He was promptly shot dead while his wife watched in horror.

It's not widely known who blew Welch's cover. Former CIA director Richard Colby first blamed the murder on Counterspy magazine, which at one point had named Welch as a CIA employee. Then he backed off. In her memoir, former first lady Barbara Bush blamed Phillip Agee, a former CIA agent. She, too, backed off, when Agee threatened a lawsuit.

Wherever the responsibility lies, Welch's death was in large part responsible for the 1982 passage of a law making it a federal crime to reveal, without authorization, the name of an undercover agent. Violation could bring a $50,000 fine and/or 10 years in prison.

"It's pretty clear language," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Secrecy Project for the Federation of American Scientists.

What the Bush administration does, if anything, to learn the identity of the people who named Plame will be "a good test of their good faith on these matters," Aftergood added. "Are they concerned about classified information only when it serves their interests? We don't know the answer yet."

There are still hard feelings in Washington going back to the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Bush restricted classified information to lawmakers and investigated dozens of lawmakers and staff members over leaks of classified information from the National Security Agency.

Nevertheless, Wilson said he isn't expecting any help from the White House. "This administration came to power promising to restore dignity and honor to the office, and they have done neither," he said.

Asked if he would go public with his criticism again, as he did in the op-ed piece, Wilson said, "Absolutely. I believed then and I believe now that WMD are the largest threat we face in this nation. I had unique qualifications for the job - I knew the business and I knew the people - and my government asked me to go."

His wife agrees, he said. "She's tougher than I am."

[Last modified August 10, 2003, 04:12:16]

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