Joe Conason's Journal

Did the White House break the law when it outed a CIA operative?

Published July 23, 2003 9:41PM (EDT)

Still "changing the tone" at the White House
Although George W. Bush's admirers like to describe his administration as Reaganesque, the current atmosphere in and around the White House evokes a different adjective. It's a term that reminds us instead of the politician who mentored George Herbert Walker Bush, and inspired Karl Rove to take up dirty tricks as a young Republican. There is simply no word that describes what this White House has been doing to its critics lately as aptly as "Nixonian."

Yesterday Senator Dick Durbin made a speech on the Senate floor, accusing the White House of conducting a whispering campaign against him among Washington reporters in retaliation for his criticism of its Iraq policy and misuse of intelligence. According to Durbin, reporters have told him that administration officials are alleging he disclosed classified information and that his Republican colleagues believe he should be removed from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

For the mild, decent and diligent Durbin to speak out so angrily, the provocation had to be severe. But as the Illinois Democrat noted in his floor speech, he isn't alone in suffering smears that apparently emanate from the White House. ABC News correspondent Jeffrey Kofman was targeted last week in the Drudge Report, which pointed out that Kofman is openly gay and Canadian (gasp!) after ABC aired his piece about drooping morale among U.S. troops in Iraq. The Washington Post then quoted Matt Drudge saying he had been "tipped" about Kofman by someone "in the White House communications shop." Added Drudge: "The White House press office is under new management and has become slightly more aggressive about contacting reporters."

For a day or two the talk-radio morons roasted Kofman, but he will suffer no permanent damage. More sinister was the attack on former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose recent revelations about the Niger uranium fraud badly damaged White House credibility. In a July 14 column about Wilson, Robert Novak revealed that the ex-diplomat's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA operative working to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Novak quoted "senior administration officials" about Plame, whom they seem to blame for sending her husband to Niger on the mission that proved so embarrassing to Bush. This attempt to damage the wife of a White House critic by revealing her status as a CIA operative is not only nasty, it puts her at risk and is very likely illegal.

Wilson discussed the incident with David Corn, who wrote a powerful column that broke the Plame story in the Nation. "Stories like this," Wilson told Corn, "are not intended to intimidate me, since I've already told my story. But it's pretty clear it is intended to intimidate others who might come forward. You need only look at the stories of intelligence analysts who say they have been pressured. They may have kids in college, they may be vulnerable to these types of smears."

That brings us back to Durbin, who has instigated a probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee of the exposure of Valerie Plame's identity. At Durbin's request, the committee will summon White House staffers to "ask what led up to this situation and why we're in the position that we're in today.

If those committee hearings are open to the press and public, the show won't be pleasing to the White House, especially if Joe Wilson is called to testify about the attempt to hurt his wife. He happens to be a real hero who saved lives during crises in Kuwait and Iraq, not a political stuntman who gets delivered onto an aircraft carrier in a tailored flight suit.

The official White House response is a shrug from the press podium, where Bush's new flak Scott McClellan pretended today that none of these ugly episodes really happened:

Q: Scott, has there ever been an attempt or effort on the part of anyone here at the White House to discredit the reputations or reporting of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, his wife, or ABC correspondent Jeffrey Kofman?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, I think I answered that yesterday. That is not the way that this White House operates. That's not the way the president operates. And certainly, I first became aware of those news reports when we were contacted by reporters and the questions were raised. It's the first I had heard of those. No one would be authorized to do that within this White House. That is simply not the way we operate, and that's simply not the way the president operates.

Q: In all of those cases?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, go down -- which two?

Q: Joe Wilson and his wife?


Q: And Jeffrey Kofman from ABC.

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, if there's any truth to it, it's totally inappropriate. Second of all, I just made very clear, that's simply not the way we operate.

Q: So that's a little bit of a change. You said if there's any truth to it, it's inappropriate, whereas just a moment ago --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, no, you were talking about the first one on I guess, the ABC reporter. And I had previously said that if that were true, it would be totally inappropriate. I'm not suggesting it is. I have no knowledge of anything to suggest that it is. Obviously, sometimes there are anonymous reports out there. I always wish I knew -- I could find out who anonymous was.

Q: Are you trying to do an internal investigation to find out?

MR. McCLELLAN: I have no reason to believe that there is any truth that that has happened. So if I thought that there was any reason to believe that something like that had happened, I would --

Q: So you're saying that reporters just made it up?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- try to get to the bottom. Campbell, I just said that anonymous is someone I would like to know who that is, but it's usually a fruitless search.

The new press secretary just sounds truly, deeply outraged, doesn't he? The president must be furious, too.

[2:45 p.m. PST, July 23, 2003]
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By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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