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Wednesday, May 30, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

Via MSNBC: Plame was ‘covert’ agent at time of name leak

An unclassified summary of outed CIA officer Valerie Plame’s employment history at the spy agency, disclosed for the first time today in a court filing by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, indicates that Plame was “covert” when her name became public in July 2003.

The summary is part of an attachment to Fitzgerald’s memorandum to the court supporting his recommendation that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former top aide, spend 2-1/2 to 3 years in prison for obstructing the CIA leak investigation.

The nature of Plame’s CIA employment never came up in Libby’s perjury and obstruction of justice trial.

Many questions emerge on this issue, but one of the first is: doesn’t this prejudice the sentencing phase of the Libby trial by introducing something inflammatory that was not introduced at trial? That doesn’t strike me as appropriate or fair at this stage.

A few other issues are worthy of comment.

1) It would still seem that no crime was committed vis-a-vis Plame’s status, as the law required that the person leaking the information had to know what they were revealing. It remains unclear that either Armitage or Libby knew that she was covert, only that she was a CIA employee.

That latter point leads to:

2) What good is covert status if it is easy to determine that one works for the CIA? As Ed Morrissey notes:

Plame drove into the office in Langley. She traveled abroad under her own name. She helped arrange for her husband to do some fact-checking on a sensitive intelligence matter. Her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, then came home and leaked his observations to two nationally-known journalists, and then wrote his own op-ed in the New York Times under his byline.

And her husband managed to list her in Who’s Who, where any journalist could look up the entry — and where Robert Novak did just that.

Further, when Novak called the CIA, they confirmed she was an employee wasn’t especially vociferous about not revealing that fact.

Given that I know little about what would be “normal” in such a situation, I have to wonder about the whole affair anyway—if it was as easy as it was to discover that Plame worked for the CIA, then what good is covert status? Perhaps this is normal, but it seems odd.

And, I will note, none of this absolves Libby of perjury, but rather it is simply more confusing information in a convoluted story.

Update: A point of clarification: my point about Plame’s status, and why I quote Morrissey, is that it did seem relatively easy to find out that Plame worked for the CIA. This strikes me as odd. As Jim Henley notes in the comments, it may simply be the case that we aren’t very good at keeping covert agents covert. I honestly don’t know what is normal, but one of the things that has always struck me as questionable about the Plame story from the very beginning is that her employment status was never as much of a secret as one would think it would be if she was covert. At a minimum, I always thought that if her covert status was so important, then it seemed stupid to place her husband into such a public position–indeed, it was doubly stupid for Wilson himself to draw attention to himself, and by extension potentially his wife. One would think that if Plame’s covert-ness was as important to her as it was that perhaps her husband would have been a bit more circumspect in his actions. I say none of this to defend Libby or anyone else in the administration on this issue. But, surely it is not unreasonable for the spouse of a covert operative to be a bit more low profile so as to help protect his wife’s career?

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10 Responses to “Plame was Covert (Why are We Only Finding out Now?)”

  1. Jim Henley Says:

    Some of this is not mysterious. Covert employees have always rotated in and out of Langley duty. Nothing new there. Covert CIA officers have always had their wedding anouncements in the newspapers, just like everyone else. The way you used to spot a CIA covert officer from his wedding announcement was that it declared that he “work[ed] for the Department of the Army.” A relatively famous person like Wilson not listing his wife in his Who’s Who entry would arouse more suspicion than including her. And yes, CIA’s effort at disguising its covert employees has always sucked. I once read that any trained analyst could spot the Agency employees in a standard American embassy just from a building directory. Local contractors will have worked on the special secure section and you can get that info with half an effort. After that it’s just cross-referencing.

    Morrissey seems to be operating under the spectacular misconception that “covert” means nobody knows you exist. It’s the only reason why someone would find it odd that covert employees announce their weddings and go to parties and otherwise act as if they had nothing to hide. He should try examining the kerning on Fitzgerald’s sentencing document instead – that appears to be the limit of his talent for analysis.

    I think you personally have a good point about the prejudicial nature of confirming Plame’s status only during the sentencing stage. As for not trying very hard to hide her employment, I offered my own conspiracy theory last night. Medals of Freedom are involved.

  2. Andy Vance Says:

    Plame drove into the office in Langley.

    Has it been established conclusively that covert agents do not work at Langley? I can’t find evidence either way.

  3. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Andy,

    It is a good question. I guess that is answer is that they do, if we use Plame as an example.

  4. Andy Vance Says:

    It makes intuitive sense, but on the other hand I doubt most aspects of the CIA conform to popcult notions.

    Larry Johnson claims they do as a matter of course in between assignments, and Victoria Toensing claims she knows as a “matter of fact” that they don’t. The CIA will never confirm one way or t’other, so it seems it will always be open to speculation.

  5. Jim Henley Says:

    Look, it is an absolute fact that covert officers do tours at Langley. Anyone who doesn’t know that doesn’t know anyone who works in intelligence or hasn’t done the reading on any of the useful histories and biographies. Anyone who, like Toensing, states the contrary as fact is either maliciously ignorant or simply lying.

    Steven your update has an edge of the perverse to it:

    At a minimum, I always thought that if her covert status was so important, then it seemed stupid to place her husband into such a public position . . .

    Um, welcome to the modern, two-career Washington marriage. So much more goes into this kind of thing than some idealized (really, mythologized) decision about “what provides the tightest security.” Issues of bureaucratic politics and personnel management bulk large. The convenience of the governing class to which Plame, Wilson and the people making decisions about their careers all belonged, is very important.

    If the CIA were all about the security and effectiveness, it wouldn’t systematically disfavor recruiting Americans with extensive travel backgrounds and time spent living overseas. But it’s harder to clear those people, so we end up recruiting a bunch of monolingual homebodies. John Walker Lindh can get into the Taliban, but CIA people can’t because nobody wants to suffer the career purgatory of spending several years undercover in crummy living conditions, away from promotion opportunities and good restaurants.

    The actual business of intelligence has so much less to do with an amateur’s notion of what organizations like the CIA “ought to do” than people think that when cases like Plame come around people get absolutely flummoxed.

  6. Jim Henley Says:

    It makes intuitive sense, but on the other hand I doubt most aspects of the CIA conform to popcult notions.

    This, BTW, states the core of the issue with admirable precision.

  7. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Jim,

    I actually do understand that we aren’t talking about double-knot spies here.

    My point is more from the POV of a husband: if why wife’s professional status was sensitive, I would be more circumspect than Wilson was in his public dealings.

    This is not an unreasonable position to take–and is hardly perverse.

  8. Jim Henley Says:

    Steven: Sorry, I misread your passive-voice construction as meaning it was stupid of “the government” to make Wilson a high-level diplomat. I see now that the “position” you meant was “public critic of the Bush Admin’s intelligence” and the putters as Wilson and Plame the couple.

    So that makes more internal sense as a viewpoint than what I thought you were saying. However, let’s think this through:

    1. In the real world “everybody” didn’t know that Valerie Plame Wilson worked for the CIA.

    2. In itself, Joe Wilson’s Niger trip doesn’t scream “My wife works for the CIA!” It just says, “I’m an old Africa hand who retains strong ties to the US government and, oh by the way, was the highest-serving diplomat in Iraq at one point, just the kind of guy who gets tapped for these kinds of trips.

    3. I think you can make an argument that the marginal risk to Plame post-oped in a sane world is that, when she goes traveling under her own name, the occasional foreigner says, “Watch out for that one. Her husband works for the CIA! I’ll bet she tells him everything.” OTOH, Plame in her own identity is already known as the wife of an American diplomat, so Plame as Plame already raises some flags in some quarters.

    Note that, so long as Plame travels under an assumed name, the risk in point three attenuates.

    So Plame and Wilson could be fairly charged with the responsibility to judge the marginal risk in point three.

    What I categorically reject is

    4. Wilson should have known that since his oped would start a shitstorm that would lead vengeful politicos to ruin his wife’s career and kept his mouth shut.

  9. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    I am not arguing that he should keep his mouth shut, per se.

    However, you must admit that he appears to like attention more than one ought if one is at all concerned with avoiding public scrutiny. Forget what the admin did, but just think about the media environment in which we all live right now–it is not unreasonable for Wilson to have at least thought about what he might be bringing down on his family. One makes choices in life and if one is concerned about privacy, one can’t do whatever wants to do in the public arena.

    Still, perhaps we can just agree that the whole thing is a mess.

    I do believe that the administration behaved poorly, although the degree to which it represented a serious deviation from “normal” Washington politics is questionable.

    The only way it becomes a truly reprehensible act (the outing of Plame) is if Libby & Co. knew she was covert, and there is no evidence that they did.

    The ultimate irony here is that it appears there would have been no crime has Libby just told the truth.

  10. Plame Covert in Fitzgerald’s Eyes » The American Mind Says:

    [...] Suppose Plame was covert. Steven Taylor makes two good points. 1.) There’s no evidence anyone in the Bush administration knew she was covert. 2.) “I have to wonder about the whole affair anyway—if it was as easy as it was to discover that Plame worked for the CIA, then what good is covert status? Perhaps this is normal, but it seems odd.” Save and Share: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. [...]


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