A concerted effort to out Valerie Plame?

Or, how many "senior administration officials" does it take to reveal the identity of a CIA agent?

Published February 7, 2006 5:13PM (EST)

In its defense of warrantless spying on American citizens, the White House has insisted repeatedly that it "briefed Congress" on what it now calls its "terrorist surveillance program." As the president himself put it the other day, "You know, it's amazing, when people say to me, 'Well, he was just breaking the law.' If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?"

So here's a question. If it's fair to say that the White House "briefed Congress" when it briefed only eight members of Congress, isn't it just as fair to say that "the White House" -- not Karl Rove, not Scooter Libby, but "the White House" -- conspired to discredit a critic by revealing the identity of his CIA agent wife?

Truth be told, it doesn't require a lot of wordplay to reach such a conclusion. In a new report in Slate, former Time reporter John Dickerson pretty much establishes that Bush administration officials engaged in a concerted effort to attack Joseph Wilson by claiming that his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, had arranged his trip to Niger.

Just after Wilson's Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times, Dickerson found himself in Africa as part of the press pool covering the president's trip there. As reporters tried to follow up on Wilson's criticism and Ari Fleischer's subsequent admission that "incorrect" information about a Niger-Iraq connection had found its way into George W. Bush's State of the Union address, a "senior administration official" told Dickerson that a low-level employee at the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger and that he ought to ask the agency who it was. An hour later, Dickerson says, a "different senior administration official" gave him almost exactly the same tip, saying repeatedly that a low-level CIA employee had sent Wilson to Niger and Dickerson should "follow that angle." Dickerson dutifully made a note to himself: "look who sent."

It turns out, he didn't have to. By the time Dickerson was able to reach his colleague Matthew Cooper back in Washington, Rove had already told Cooper that Wilson's wife had sent him to Niger. Cooper confirmed the story with Libby, who, unbeknown to either Cooper or Dickerson at the time, had already told it all to Judy Miller, too.

If Rove and Libby were dishing out the full story in Washington, why were "senior administration officials" traveling with the president in Africa more circumspect about what reporters would find at the end of the "who sent Wilson" string? Dickerson has a theory. "I came back from the trip harboring a suspicion that only fully made sense when I learned Plame's CIA cover had been blown," he writes. "It seemed obvious that the people pushing me to look into who sent Wilson knew exactly the answer I'd find. Yet they were really careful not to let the information slip, which suggested that they knew at the time Plame's identity was radioactive."

And indeed, it now appears that it was. Portions of a previously redacted opinion by D.C. Circuit Judge David Tatel were released last week, and they show that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has evidence that Plame performed "covert work overseas" within five years prior to her outing and that the CIA was making "specific efforts to conceal" her identity. That's a long way of saying that she may have been a "covert" agent within the meaning of the Espionage Act, and that it would have been a crime for anyone who knew as much to have revealed her identity to others.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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