Secrets And Leaks

In Washington, so-called leak investigations--formal inquiries by the Justice Department into the publication of classified information--are like endless replays of the movie "Casablanca": the authorities round up the usual suspects, nothing much happens, and life goes on. Without leaks, arguably, the U.S. government could not function. Trial balloons could not be floated, political scores could not be settled, wrongs would go unexposed, policy could not be made. It is against the law to reveal government secrets that might harm national security, but as a practical matter, journalists (protected by the First Amendment) are very rarely pressed to reveal their sources. Leak investigations are launched about every other week in Washington, but only occasionally is the leaker caught, and it has been two decades since anyone was criminally punished.

It's not likely that anyone will go to jail for outing Valerie Plame Wilson as an undercover spy for the Central Intelligence Agency. But the leak--from unnamed "senior administration officials," allegedly in retribution for her husband's accusing the Bushies of "twisting" intelligence--has stirred a scandal that casts light on a dark side of the Bush administration. All presidents deplore leaks in the strongest terms, and then wink at (or, in some cases, personally authorize) leaks that serve their purposes. No one is accusing George W. Bush of reincarnating Richard Nixon. Still, this administration has been particularly secretive and manipulative, at once condemning and seeking to stop "unauthorized disclosures" while putting out its own selective version of the truth.

There is more than a whiff of payback in the air as the media gleefully report on the finger-pointing, demands for a special prosecutor and the huffy denials of top administration officials. Many career bureaucrats and members of the press have chafed at the sometimes lordly attitude of Bush and his war cabinet, but quailed in the face of popular demand for strong leadership after 9/11. As Bush has begun to sink in the polls, however, his critics have become emboldened. The case of Valerie Plame Wilson is being offered up as one of those morality tales that have a broader meaning. Mrs. Wilson's scandalous unmasking may be to the Bush administration what the $640 toilet seat was to the Reagan-era defense buildup in the 1980s: an easy-to-grasp symbol of arrogance and excess.

The administration is showing defiance, but not its characteristic cockiness. Appearing angry at times, Bush last week criticized press treatment of an interim report by David Kay, the former U.N. arms inspector sent by the Bush administration to look for WMD in Iraq. The headlines reported that Kay's team had found none. But Bush testily noted that the press glossed over what Kay's team did find during its still-incomplete search: signs of a nascent biological-weapons program, including a vial of a deadly toxin, and a surprisingly ambitious effort by Saddam Hussein to build a long-range missile.

Meanwhile, White House officials scrambled to contain the leak scandal. FBI agents will be arriving at the White House this week, and the plot is likely to thicken, as some senior administration officials have some explaining (or bluffing) to do. As Washington whodunits go, this as-yet-unsolved mystery has an especially colorful cast and several intriguing, if puzzling, twists and turns. It begins with an unusually flamboyant diplomat on a secret mission to Africa.

In February 2002, the CIA sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV to the African country of Niger to check on reports that the Iraqis tried to buy yellowcake uranium to make a nuclear weapon. Wilson was known for his showy bravery. As the acting U.S. ambassador to Baghdad in 1990, before the gulf war, he had sheltered hundreds of Americans from becoming potential hostages. When Saddam threatened to execute anyone who did not turn over foreigners, Wilson met with reporters wearing a hangman's noose rather than a tie. The message, Wilson said, was: "If you want to execute me, I'll bring my own f---ing rope." Retired from the Foreign Service to become a business consultant, Wilson, an experienced Africa hand, eagerly took on the CIA assignment to poke around Niger. (He accepted no pay, other than expenses.) After drinking mint tea and talking to Niger officials for about a week, Wilson concluded that the reports of Iraqi uranium purchases were almost certainly bogus.

Wilson's report seems to have vanished into the bureaucratic maw. In his January '03 State of the Union address, President Bush, citing British intelligence reports, repeated the charge that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from Niger. The warning was one in a series of dire pronouncements from top administration officials. Beginning in the summer of 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney and national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice had repeatedly averred in speeches and TV interviews that Saddam was intent on building an atom bomb.

As the pressure grew to pre-emptively invade Iraq, media reports began to surface suggesting that the U.S. intelligence community was perhaps not quite so confident of Saddam's arsenal as the true believers in the Bush administration. The hard-liners, especially neocons in the Defense Department and the office of the vice president, swept aside those doubts as the caviling of timid bureaucrats. Just because the CIA couldn't produce solid proof of WMD was no reason to doubt that Saddam was a clear and present danger. "The absence of evidence," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say, "is not evidence of absence." Most reporters did not aggressively challenge Rumsfeld and Cheney & Co. at the time, a reticence some came to regret.

Then, last spring, the press, along with some Democratic congressmen and presidential candidates, began to question more assertively why no weapons of mass destruction were turning up in Iraq. Wilson, not one to shy from a fight or from publicity, decided to enter the fray with an op-ed piece describing his secret mission to Niger. Writing in The New York Times on July 6, he accused the Bush administration of "twist[ing]" intelligence to "exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Irked by Wilson's public charges, administration officials promptly set about undermining Wilson's credibility. Unnamed administration officials told reporters that Wilson was a Democrat, a Sen. John Kerry contributor and supporter. The administration aides leaked that Wilson's mission had not been authorized at the top, by CIA Director George Tenet, but rather by some midlevel bureaucrats. Then someone--the mysterious leaker or leakers at the heart of the story--went a step further. According to columnist Robert Novak, "two senior administration officials" told him that the idea of sending Wilson to Africa came from his wife--Valerie Plame, "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Novak is the perfect receptacle for such a leak. An old-time Washington insider known for his gruff manner, black suits, conservative leanings and love of Washington intrigue, Novak has been jokingly called "the Prince of Darkness." At first, Novak told reporters from Newsday, "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me." But after the story blew up, Novak played down the leak, saying that Plame's CIA identity was revealed to him "in passing," and that he thought she was an analyst, not an undercover agent. Before printing her name, he checked with a CIA spokesman, who made only mild objections, according to Novak.

Plame was, in fact, an NOC ("nonofficial cover")--a deep-cover agent posing as an energy consultant as she traveled abroad. Exposing her was not a trivial matter. It ended Plame's career as a secret agent, blew the cover of her energy business and put every foreigner she had ever dealt with at risk. Identifying an undercover agent is a federal offense.

At the time, a few reporters and lawmakers raised a fuss. Newsday reporters Timothy Phelps and Knut Royce quoted an indignant Wilson as saying, "It's a shot across the bow to these people, that if you talk we'll take your family and drag them through the mud as well." Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia called the disclosure --of Plame's identity "vile" and a "highly dishonorable thing to do." But most news organizations ignored the story, and it seemed to fade away.

Leak investigations often lumber slowly along before petering out. Government lawyers have to fill out forms asserting that the information was true and damaging to national security. It was only two weeks ago that the CIA finally got around to formally asking the Justice Department to investigate the leak blowing Plame's cover.

The facts remain murky but tantalizing to students of the Washington game. Ambassador Wilson, a shaggy-haired, camera-friendly presence, has been meeting the press on a regular basis. Showing a New York Times reporter photographs of his striking blond wife (his third; he is 53, she is 40; they met at a Washington party), he compared her to a real-life Jennifer Garner, the actress who plays an undercover agent in the TV show "Alias." Wilson has repeatedly suggested that the chief culprit was the White House's political director, Karl Rove. "It's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs," Wilson said at a public forum about Iraqi intelligence failures on Aug. 21. "And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words."

Wilson's comments clearly implied that he knew that Rove was the leaker, but last week Wilson backtracked, saying only that he knew that Rove had "condoned" the leak. Whoever initially leaked Plame's name, the White House clearly had a hand in fanning the flames. Wilson told NEWSWEEK that in the days after the Novak story appeared, he got calls from several well-connected Washington reporters. One was NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell. She told NEWSWEEK that she said to Wilson: "I heard in the White House that people were touting the Novak column and that that was the real story." The next day Wilson got a call from Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC show "Hardball." According to a source close to Wilson, Matthews said, "I just got off the phone with Karl Rove, who said your wife was fair game." (Matthews told NEWSWEEK: "I'm not going to talk about off-the-record conversations.")

The White House spokesman dismissed as "ridiculous" the charge that Rove outed Plame. A source familiar with Rove's conversation acknowledged that Rove spoke to Matthews a few days after Novak's column appeared, but said that Rove never told Matthews that Wilson's wife was "fair game"--rather, that it "was reasonable to discuss who sent Wilson to Niger." Novak wrote last week that the leaker was "no partisan gunslinger." That suggests that the original leak came from someone in the White House national-security apparatus, which holds itself above politics. Many White House staffers are potential suspects, but various press reports have suggested that the Feds will want to interview I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, an aggressive consumer of intelligence regarded by some CIA analysts as an intimidating figure.

When the CIA decided to send Wilson to Africa, the agency apparently approached him through his wife, who was working at headquarters at the time. Mrs. Wilson's identity was apparently known to the White House inner circle: a senior national-security aide with responsibility for intelligence matters had worked closely with Wilson's wife at the CIA's Counter-Proliferation division. Nonetheless, the leaker, whether it was Libby or someone else, may not have meant to smear or intimidate anyone, or to reveal that Valerie Plame Wilson worked undercover. In Joseph Wilson's original op-ed, he wrote that Cheney had asked the CIA to check out the Iraqis' alleged attempt to buy uranium in Niger. Wilson went on to say that the administration simply ignored his highly skeptical report. After reading Wilson's column, the veep's office went to some effort to tell reporters that it had never heard of Wilson's report until very recently. It may be significant that both Rove and Libby deny leaking classified information. They may say that in talking to reporters they used her name without knowing that she was undercover.

Libby was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson for the vice president's office, Cathie Martin, told NEWSWEEK: "It's irresponsible to make unsubstantiated allegations. The investigation is going on and we should let the DOJ do their work." The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, later told NEWSWEEK that he had spoken to Libby, who told him that he "neither leaked the classified information nor would he condone the leaking of it."

If the trail of the leaker does lead back into Cheney's office, the irony will be too delicious for the press to ignore. Cheney has been the most outspoken foe of leaks in the administration. The vice president's office is known for its secretiveness. Cheney has said on many occasions that he thinks Congress encroached on the power of the executive branch after Watergate in the mid-'70s (Cheney was President Gerald Ford's chief of staff at the time). He has resisted turning over information, like the private deliberations of his energy task force, to congressional committees.

Cheney has been an ardent fan of leak investigations. After 9/11, when CNN revealed transcripts of ominous warnings from Al Qaeda made on Sept. 10, 2001, that were picked up (but not translated) by the supersecret National Security Agency, Cheney called the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and chewed them out. The NSA had briefed the committees only the day before. Cheney was "very upset," recalls Sen. Bob Graham, who was then chair of the Senate committee and is now a Democratic presidential candidate. If the committee did not take swift action, Cheney warned, then the administration might just stop cooperating with the congressional inquiry into intelligence failures that preceded the attacks. Called in to investigate for leaks, the FBI asked if senators were willing to submit to polygraph tests (none volunteered). In recent weeks, NEWSWEEK has learned, several Senate staffers have been subpoenaed before a grand jury.

The administration is saying that it will fully cooperate with the leak investigation that blew Valerie Plame's cover. White House aides were ordered to preserve records, and phone logs could reveal who Novak was talking to last July. Wilson hired a lawyer and is thinking about bringing an invasion-of-privacy suit, which means deposing White House officials. This may be just the beginning of a grander inquisition. Officials in the intelligence community have been talking for some time about whether there should be a leak investigation into Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War." The book brims with classified information--most of it leaked by administration officials.