Want to know one reason why the CIA has been unable to recruit spies? Just reflect on how a potential recruit would react to the outing of Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operations officer.
The investigation into which administration officials compromised Plame, wife of former US ambassador Joseph Wilson, is nearing completion. Lost in the recent spurt of press reporting, however, is the fact that the outing of Ms. Plame (and, as night follows the day, her carefully cultivated network of spies) has done great damage to US clandestine operations—not to mention those she recruited over her distinguished career.
Ms. Plame, a very gifted case officer, was a close colleague of mine at CIA. Her dedication and courage were made abundantly clear when she became one of the few to volunteer to asume the risks of operating under non-official cover—meaning that if you get caught, too bad, you’re on your own; the US government never heard of you.
The supreme irony is that Plame’s now-compromised network was reporting on the priority-one issue of US intelligence—weapons of mass destruction. Thus, it was made clear to all, including active and potential intelligence sources abroad, that even when high-priority intelligence targets are involved, Bush administration officials do not shrink from exposing such sources for petty political purpose. The harm to CIA and its efforts to recruit spies instinctively wary of the risks in providing intelligence information is immense.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Ambassador Wilson publicly exposed an important lie—and the president as liar-in-chief—when Wilson debunked reporting that Iraq was seeking uranium in the African country of Niger. Still, as Wilson himself has suggested, the primary purpose of leaking his wife’s employment at CIA was not so much to retaliate against him personally, but rather to issue a warning to others privy to administration lies on the war not to speak out. Administration officials felt they needed to provide an object lesson of what truth tellers can expect in the way of swift retaliation.
...and It Was All Based on a Forgery
Whether or not indictments come down, our domesticated mainstream media probably will continue to play down the damage to US intelligence. Even more important, they are likely to ignore completely the very curious event that started the whole business—the forging of documents that became the basis of reporting that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger for its (non-existent) nuclear weapons program. Together with other circumstantial evidence, the neuralgic reaction of Vice President Dick Cheney to press reports that he was point man for promoting the bogus “intelligence” report suggests that he may also have been its intellectual author/authorizer.
Yes, I am suggesting that it may have been an inside job. Cheney and his chief of staff Lewis Libby may well have had a hand in commissioning the forgery, as a way of manufacturing an intelligence report, with “mushroom cloud” written all over it—in order to deceive Congress into approving an unnecessary war. The more you look into the whole affair, the curiouser and curiouser it becomes. Why, for example, would Senate Intelligence Committee chair Pat Roberts (R, Kansas) adamantly refuse to investigate the provenance of a forgery used to start a war?
And why did former Secretary of State Colin Powell, addressing the UN on February 5, 2003, decide to delete from his very long laundry list of spurious charges against Iraq its alleged attempt to acquire uranium from Niger? Even though he himself had avoided repeating the famous “16 words” used by President Bush just five weeks before (se below), Powell was forced to listen stoically as Mohammed El-Baradei, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, reported on world-wide TV that his own and outside experts had concluded that the Iraq-Niger documents were “not authentic.” The White House left it to Powell to concede that El-Baradei was correct, and Powell eventually did so.
Perhaps special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald will be able to shed light on some of this.
These are some of the key neglected issues underneath the superficial who-said-what-to-whom-when treatment that has characterized most press reporting. Small wonder that many of those trying to follow this important story are missing the forest for the trees. It is important that a fuller story be available to citizens of this country, to enable us to judge the enormity and significance of what happened. Accordingly, my Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) colleagues and I thought it would be useful to boil down into digestible, chronological form the key facts at the beginning of the story:
February 13, 2002:
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq” of July 2004 (pp 38-39), Vice President Cheney asked his CIA morning briefer for CIA’s analysis of a report, which he had seen in a Defense Intelligence Agency publication, alleging that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Niger. In response, the Director of Central Intelligence's Center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control (WINPAC) issued an intelligence assessment with limited distribution. It said, “Information on the alleged uranium contract between Iraq and Niger comes exclusively from a foreign government service report that lacks crucial details, and we are working to clarify the information and to determine whether it can be corroborated.” The assessment also noted, “Some of the information in the report contradicts reporting from the U.S. Embassy in Niamey (Niger). US diplomats say the French Government-led consortium that operates Niger 's two uranium mines maintains complete control over uranium mining and yellowcake production." The CIA sent a separate version of the assessment to the Vice President’s office, which differed only in that it named the foreign government service.
Officials of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) have told the Senate committee that DO managers—not Valerie Plame—decided to send former ambassador Wilson to Niger to make immediate inquiries. Wilson, who was acting ambassador in Baghdad when the 1991 Gulf War began, had earlier served in Niger, and had wide contacts there. On February 19, after meeting with DO managers and other intelligence community officials at CIA headquarters, Wilson was commissioned to go to Niger and investigate.
Ambassador Wilson arrived in Niger. He determined during the course of his visit that there was no substance to the allegation that Iraq was trying to procure uranium in Niger. The US Ambassador to Niger told the Senate Committee that Ambassador Wilson’s conclusion was the same as that reached earlier by the U.S. embassy in Niamey.
Vice President Cheney asked his CIA briefer for an update on the Niger issue. According to the Senate report on the prewar performance of intelligence, Cheney had not forgotten his original request. And so CIA officers immediately debriefed Ambassador Wilson on the results of his trip, wrote up his report, and disseminated the report on 8 March (p. 42 of the Senate report).Fall of 2002: CIA officials repeatedly warned the administration and Congress not to accept as fact the claim that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium. According to the Senate report (p. 54), the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency told Senator Kyl, for example, that the CIA did not agree with the British view that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium. On October 6, 2002, CIA Director Tenet called Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley to warn him not to introduce the bogus information into the speech being readied for the president to use the next day (just three days before Congress voted to authorize war). Hadley removed the passage from the speech (p. 56.)
January 28, 2003:
In his State of the Union Address, President Bush included the (in)famous “16 words,” saying, “The British government has learned (sic) that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Vice President Cheney’s office was irate over a May 6 article by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof regarding the mission of a “former US ambassador” to Niger, and in particular to Kristof’s assertion that the Vice President had instigated the trip. According to former senior CIA officials, Cheney’s aides were ”very uptight about the vice president being tagged that way.”
The White House, with the participation of Karl Rove and Lewis Libby (and, according to one recent report, of the president and vice president themselves), conceived and then executed a plan to discredit Ambassador Wilson. A variety of reports from journalists and others show that as early as the end of May, White House officials were trying to dig up dirt on Ambassador Wilson. And the State Department drafted a top-secret memorandum on the Iraq-Niger affair, identifying Vallerie Plame by her maiden name.
Robert Novak, citing two Administration sources, identified Valerie Plame by name as a CIA operative. Plame was still under cover when Novak published her name, thus compromising not only Plame, but also the many agents she had recruited. She conducted several overseas missions as part of her cover job.
Betrayal. There is no other word for it. Except some might call it treason.
Larry Johnson worked as a CIA intelligence analyst and State Department counter-terrorism official. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
An earlier version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com