(Please welcome host Sidney Blumenthal and author Valerie Plame Wilson in the comments today, here to discuss her new book Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House — JH)
None of Valerie Plame’s elaborate training to become an elite covert operative for the CIA prepared her for the Byzantine, vicious and dispiriting smear campaigns directed against her and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, in Bush’s Washington. When he felt compelled to tell the truth about President Bush’s false rationale for the invasion of Iraq—the infamous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address claiming Saddam Hussein was securing yellow uranium for nuclear weapons—Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the defamation of Wilson’s reputation. When the White House apparatus was instantly set in motion, with Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby serving as the action officer on the op, and Karl Rove and Ari Fleischer relentlessly pressing the “scoop” on reporters, Plame still toiled away unknowing at her job at the CIA seeking information about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, not only in Iraq but also Iran and other dangerous places. In the blink of an eye, as quickly as Rove says to Chris Matthews, “Wilson’s wife is fair game,” Plame’s carefully constructed secret identity, her worldwide network of informants and the vital flow of intelligence on WMDs were blown apart.
Valerie Plame Wilson’s just published book, “Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House,” is her personal account of helplessly observing her career being shattered as in an out-of-body experience. “Fair Game” is rife with long redacted passages that the CIA censors insisted upon, though the information they blacked out was mostly on the public record. (The publisher, Simon & Schuster recruited investigative reporter Laura Rozen to fill in these blanks in an indispensable afterword.) The omissions only heighten the intrigue.
In the beginning Plame appears as Jane Bond. She describes her schooling in the arts of spycraft at the CIA’s “Farm,” where she discovers among other things that she is a crack shot, unafraid of diving out of planes and crawling through enemy fire. The details of her training discredit the long propagated falsehood by a host of conservative spinners, from the columnist Robert Novak to the attorney Victoria Toensing, that Plame was never a covert operative. Plame’s account of her clandestine work based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, which also required trips abroad, further demolishes the lie.
After years in the field, Plame is assigned to a new group called the Counterproliferation Division within the Department of Operations, dubbed as the “island of misfit toys” within the agency. The search for WMDs becomes a concentrated goal. In the run up to the war in Iraq, Plame is one of the key officers tasked to locate them. One of the most knowledgeable operatives, she continues to believe that it is highly likely that Saddam indeed has WMDs and is hiding them. Moreover, CIA director George Tenet sends around a memo, which also is intended for the Congress then voting on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, claiming that there are proven links between Saddam and al Qaeda—false information that Plame (and the Congress) has no way of knowing is wrong. Plame works night and day to attempt to make the case, but fails to unearth evidence.
On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presents the “facts” before the United Nations Security Council. Tenet sits behind Powell to underscore the reliability of his speech. “When the program ended and we all drifted back to our desks,” writes Plame, “I was deeply upset, my head spinning. I was experiencing what I can only call cognitive dissonance… I had been tracking Iraqi WMD efforts carefully for some time [redacted] and the facts I knew simply did not match up with what Powell had just presented.” Later, of course, Powell’s presentation was revealed as utter disinformation. At the time, Plame wondered, “Perhaps someone had managed to recruit a source deep inside Saddam’s innermost circle who was providing alarming evidence of his plans.” She has no knowledge that what Powell says is true. “The idea that my government, which I had served loyally for years, might be exaggerating a case for war was impossible to comprehend. Nothing made sense.”
After ‘Mission Accomplished,” Wilson discloses in a New York Times op-ed, “What I Didn’t Find In Africa,” that the administration’s justification for war was rooted in falsehood. Having been sent to Niger to uncover Saddam’s nefarious uranium buying scheme, he reported to the CIA that he could find no such evidence. The supposed documents used to prove it turned out to be forged. Who forged them remains a mystery. Immediately upon publication of Wilson’s op-ed, Cheney swings his underlings into action. Plame becomes collateral damage.
The reason for destroying the cover of a CIA operative was purely political. Cheney, et al showed absolutely no concern for protecting national security. Rather, they were intent on defending the administration and their policies from Wilson’s truthful revelation. Wilson had to be besmirched, and so they outed Plame. Systematically, they told reporters that she was behind sending her husband on the mission, a “junket,” as Cheney calls it, in order to distract and discredit. With her identity exposed, Plame’s utility was at an end. There can be no doubt that this breach seriously compromised national security.
One abiding mystery unaddressed in Plame’s book remains the role of former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who corroborated Novak’s story (Rove being his main source) and leaking Plame’s name to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for potential use in a book to be published later (not for a current newspaper article). The close friend and number two to Powell, Armitage was not one of the neoconservatives or part of Cheney’s bureaucratic machinery. Why Armitage? Armitage himself has yet to explain. Nor do we know the full contents of his grand jury testimony, though it may be unlikely that his exact motives were subject to interrogation by the special prosecutor. Sources in the intelligence community tell me that Armitage wished to be appointed CIA director in Bush’s second term. Armitage also had a long relationship with Rove. Moreover, Armitage had never before deigned to speak with or even return a phone call from Novak. Yet he called Novak himself to confirm Plame’s identity. It seems inconceivable that Armitage did this completely at his own initiative. Pointing to Armitage as a leaker settles nothing. Libby, Rove and Fleischer, meanwhile, were all leaking furiously. And Armitage has yet to explain.
After her outing, Plame enters a bewildering world. The spymaster becomes the prey. Her government degrades the valued agent. The lies come so fast they are impossible to rebut. Detailed explanations exploding the falsehoods are ignored by a complicit press.
The Republican controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summons Plame and her CIA colleagues, only to issue a false report, given credence by the editorial page of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The testimony of her fellow operative at the CIA who actually recommended Wilson for his Niger mission is deliberately omitted. Distressed, he tells Plame, “They twisted my testimony… I recommended Joe for the trip, don’t you remember. I told the committee this, but they didn’t include it in the report.” This officer writes a memo asking for permission from the CIA “that he be allowed to testify again to the SSCI to correct the record, but was told unequivocally that that was not possible.”
Her career is ruined; his business has dried up. The lies rain down. The Washington Post editorial page, a stalwart ally of Libby throughout his trial, publishes an editorial on September 1, 2006, blaming Wilson for the outing of his wife, and repeating lock, stock and barrel the falsehood of the Republican propaganda from the SSCI. “I suddenly understood what it must have felt like to live in the Soviet Union and have only the state propaganda entity, Pravda, as the source of news about the world.”
Even before the Libby guilty verdict, the CIA begins censoring her manuscript. She is not permitted to write the birth dates of her children. “It was the bureaucratic equivalent of Groundhog Day…”
Wilson and Plame do not attend the trial, of course, but follow it on the Internet through the assiduous courtroom reporting of the team for Firedoglake.com. The documentation introduced by the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, demolishes Libby’s defense—and the smear campaign—though those publications that perpetrated it make no amends, including the Post editorial page. Instead, on the weekend before the closing arguments, the Post “Outlook” section publishes Victoria Toensing’s mendacious article accusing Wilson of “misleading the public about how he was sent to Niger,” insisting that Fitzgerlad has no reason for an investigation and that Plame was “not covert.” The Post makes no effort to publish another piece in “Outlook” containing the facts.
With the verdict finding Libby guilty of obstruction of justice and perjury, the case is closed. But the truth remains to be known. Libby has successfully covered up for Cheney. According to Fitzgerald, a “cloud” remains over the vice president. Then Bush pardons Libby, completing the obstruction. Cheney escapes.
“Fair Game” is one of the essential documents of the Bush era, a harrowing personal account of betrayal. The betrayals of the Bush administration have become so numerous that they seem almost casual by now. Yet for Valerie Plame Wilson the personal was more than political. Betraying her was not just another lie, another smear, another Swift-boating. It was a breach of national security.