WASHINGTON - It's just a 12-letter name - Valerie Plame - but the leak by Bush administration officials of that CIA officer's identity may have damaged U.S. national security to a much greater extent than generally realized, current and former agency officials say.
Plame, the wife of former ambassador and Bush critic Joseph Wilson, was a member of a small elite-within-an-elite, a CIA employee operating under "nonofficial cover," in her case as an energy analyst, with little or no protection from the U.S. government if she got caught.
Training agents such as Plame, 40, costs millions of dollars and requires the time-consuming establishment of elaborate fictions, called "legends," including in this case the creation of a CIA front company that helped lend plausibility to her trips overseas.
At the end of the day, (the harm) will be huge and some people potentially may have lost their lives.
former CIA and State Department official
Compounding the damage, the front company, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, whose name has been reported previously, apparently also was used by other CIA officers whose work now could be at risk, according to Vince Cannistraro, formerly the agency's chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis.
Now, Plame's career as a covert operations officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations is over. Those she dealt with - whether on business or not - may be in danger. The DO is conducting an extensive damage assessment.
And Plame's exposure may make it harder for American spies to convince foreigners to share important secrets with them, U.S. intelligence officials said.
Bush partisans tend to downplay the leak's damage, saying Plame's true job was widely known in Washington, if unspoken. And, they say, she had moved from the DO, the CIA's covert arm, to an analysis job.
But intelligence professionals, infuriated over the breach and what they see as the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence on Iraq, vehemently disagree.
Larry Johnson - a former CIA and State Department official who was a 1985 classmate of Plame's in the CIA's case officer-training program at Camp Peary, Va., known as "the Farm" - predicted that when the CIA's internal damage assessment is finished, "at the end of the day, (the harm) will be huge and some people potentially may have lost their lives."
"This is not just another leak. This is an unprecedented exposing of an agent's identity," said former CIA officer Jim Marcinkowski, who's now a prosecutor in Royal Oak, Mich., and who also did CIA training with Plame.
The leak of Plame's identity to syndicated columnist Robert Novak and other journalists is the subject of a Justice Department investigation that has rattled President Bush's White House. Knowingly revealing the identity of a covert agent is a crime.
Critics say the leak was meant to intimidate critics such as Wilson, a former ambassador who traveled to the African country of Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking uranium ore for nuclear weapons. Wilson found no basis for the claims and later publicly criticized Bush's description of Iraq's nuclear weapons program.
One mystery is how one or more officials at the White House knew of Plame's work, since the CIA and other intelligence agencies guard the identities of their covert officers, often even from their political masters.
"The background on an agent typically is not common knowledge," said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Whoever leaked (the information) probably wasn't supposed to have access to it."
Intelligence officials said Plame worked on an issue high on Bush's list of priorities: the spread of missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical arms, collectively known as weapons of mass destruction.
Human intelligence - as opposed to electronic surveillance - about WMD development and weapons transfers is hard to come by, especially in "hard target" countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Much about Plame's career remains a mystery, and probably will stay that way. The CIA refuses to acknowledge her employment or anything else associated with the case.
Born in 1963, she graduated from Pennsylvania State University and was recruited quickly by the CIA, attending training classes in 1985.
In 1990 and 1991, Plame was attached to a U.S. embassy in Europe, according to address records, suggesting she may have operated under official cover for a time. Knight Ridder voluntarily is withholding the precise location of the embassy. Plame's name doesn't appear in State Department telephone and embassy directories from that period.
In April 1999, Plame, using her married name of Valerie E. Wilson, donated $1,000 to then-Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She listed her employer as Brewster-Jennings & Associates.
The name suggested work in the energy field: The late Brewster Jennings was president of the old Socony-Vacuum oil company, predecessor to Mobil, now Exxon Mobil Corp.
A June 2000 listing in Dun & Bradstreet for a Boston-based "Brewster Jennings & Associates" names the company's CEO and only employee as "Victor Brewster" and says it had annual sales of $60,000.
While that might seem like flimsy cover, former intelligence officials say that in fact meticulous steps are taken to create a life-like legend to support and protect CIA officers operating under nonofficial cover.
The corps of officers using nonofficial cover is small, said former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, a critic of Bush's handling of intelligence. The program was the subject of an internal battle, he said, opposed by traditionalists, who favored the orthodox method of having spies pose as American diplomats or military officers.
"It was always controversial. There were never a lot. And there are fewer now than there were," Goodman said.
Johnson, the former CIA and State Department official, said espionage training could cost several million dollars, including $350,000 for the first year alone.
It appears that the Brewster-Jennings front was more than what is called "nominal cover," and was used as part of Plame's espionage, Johnson said.
That means anyone she met with could be in danger now, said Johnson, who described himself as "furious, absolutely furious" at the security breach.
On a personal level, if Plame's covert career wasn't over already, it is now.
"My wife's career will certainly change as a consequence of this, but my wife is a star in her business," Wilson said last Sunday on NBC. He added: "I have every expectation that her culture will embrace her and that she will continue to be a productive national security officer. But clearly her responsibilities will have to change as a consequence of this."
Wilson has said his family is taking unspecified security precautions. His wife won't talk to reporters.
"The bottom line is, she's lost her career," said former classmate Marcinkowski.
As a CIA officer operating overseas, "There's only one entity in the world that can identify you. That's the U.S. government. When the U.S. government does it, that's it," he said.
Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this article.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder