Accuracy in Media

One of the fascinating questions about the Valerie Plame affair is why Joseph Wilson lied about his wife’s role in sending him on that mission to investigate the Iraq-uranium link. In his own book, ironically titled, The Politics of Truth, Wilson admits that if she played such a role, that might be a violation of federal nepotism laws. Of course, the special prosecutor is not investigating that. But Herbert Romerstein, a former professional staff member of the House Intelligence Committee, says there is another reason. And that is that her involvement in sending her husband on a CIA mission to Africa meant that when Wilson went public about it, foreign intelligence services would investigate all of his family members for possible CIA connections. Those intelligence services would not simply assume that he went on the mission because he was a former diplomat. They would investigate his wife. And that would inevitably lead to unraveling the facts about Valerie Wilson, or Valerie Plame, and her involvement with the CIA.

As Romerstein put it in an article for Human Events, when answering the question about who really exposed Wilson’s wife, “The culprit was Joe Wilson?with some help from his wife.”

He wrote, “When Wilson wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in July [2003] and revealed that he had gone to Niger on a CIA assignment, he called attention to his wife. CIA people who are really undercover are very careful about not identifying themselves or their families with the agency. They wait until their children are old enough to keep their mouths shut before revealing, even to them, that they are CIA officers. Wilson listed his wife’s maiden name in the biography he put on the web site of the Middle East Institute.”

The nepotism was bad enough. But Romerstein is saying that Plame’s role in arranging the mission for her husband is solid proof that she was not concerned about having her “cover” blown because she was not truly under cover. Part of the confusion stems from the different forms of “cover” available to CIA employees and which can be protected under law. Romerstein says she was under “cover” only in the sense that she had used a front company, an entity called “Brewster-Jennings & Associates.” That was a “convenience” or “light cover,” but not the kind of “deep cover” that has to be protected under the terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. What’s more, she had not been overseas over the previous five years, as required for the law to apply. Instead, she had been driving in and out of the CIA headquarters in Virginia and had a desk job. That’s not the mark of a real covert agent. 

Romerstein, who had a hand in drafting the bill, explained, “When a CIA officer under deep cover is assigned to a hostile country, he knows that the enemy counter-intelligence service will do a background check. Any involvement of a relative with the CIA will endanger the officer’s cover.” Those facts mean that Plame was not under deep cover and that there must have been no plan to send her abroad under deep cover. She was certainly not deployed overseas at the time that her identification with the agency was disclosed. Furthermore, Romerstein says that “Mrs. Joe Wilson also helped shred her cover when she made a contribution to the Al Gore for President campaign and listed her cover company in the Federal Election Commission filing. If she were ever posted overseas under cover, that would provide the hostiles with a lead to unravel her CIA connection.”

When Wilson went public with his column in the New York Times, he had to know that such an article would lead to scrutiny of his wife. Equally significant, it might lead to scrutiny of her role in arranging his trip, in violation of federal nepotism laws. Therefore, he had to try to get his wife off the hook. That’s why he absolved her of any role in arranging his mission in his book. The media initially accepted what he had to say with no questions asked. Eventually, however, his cover-up fell apart when the Senate Intelligence Committee uncovered evidence that Plame had a role in her husband’s mission.

Some news organizations noted this evidence at the time but because Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald had begun investigating the issue of who leaked information about her identity, the nepotism issue was simply shunted aside, even though that is the critical matter and gets to the heart of what the Wilson affair is all about. Columnist Robert Novak’s naming of Plame as a CIA employee is a sideshow that only draws attention to a fact that isn’t of any consequence.

In retrospect, it’s clear the Plame and Wilson pulled off a monumental deception, with the help of the media. The facts suggest that Plame and her husband were determined to undermine the Administration’s Iraq policy and were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish that. Together with their media allies, they created such a firestorm over the naming of Plame that the White House panicked into seeking a special prosecutor.

When Bush official Karl Rove warned Matt Cooper of Time away from the story, on the ground that Plame had arranged the trip by her husband, he was on to the hard truth about this case. But the media were not really interested and the White House did not pursue this line of inquiry to its logical conclusion-a full-fledged investigation into the Plame-Wilson plot and who else in the CIA was behind it. Perhaps the White House was fearful of starting a war with the CIA.

Instead, as it now stands, White House officials could eventually be indicted not for disclosing the identity of a covert agent but for providing conflicting information to the special prosecutor about who knew what about Plame and when. On the other hand, because the information about her was recycled to and from the press, it may be hard for Fitzgerald to make any sense of it. The silence of jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller complicates his problem. As for Plame, she’s still at the CIA. So that problem remains.

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