A key national security principle for dealing with top-secret information, such
as the identity of undercover CIA officers, is strict compartmentalization, often
called “the need to know” – which raises the question why George
W. Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove would know anything about the
identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
The answer to that mystery – why was Rove involved – may be more
crucial to unraveling who was behind the illegal leaking of Plame’s name
and the subsequent cover-up than even the identity of which Bush officials passed
the information to right-wing pundit Robert Novak for his infamous column on
July 14, 2003.
But rather than focusing on how and why Rove knew about Plame, the latest controversy
around the case has centered on whether Rove explicitly used her name in an
interview with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper three days before Novak’s
Rove’s lawyer Robert Luskin told the Washington Post that his client
didn’t identify Plame by name, only mentioning her in giving Cooper guidance
about who was responsible for authorizing a fact-finding trip by Plame’s
husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger in February 2002. [Washington
Post, July 11, 2005]
According to an internal Time e-mail (obtained by Newsweek), Cooper informed
his editor that Rove offered a “big warning” not to “get too
far out on Wilson” and that “KR said” the Niger trip was authorized
by “wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency (CIA) on wmd
July 18, 2005, issue]
During Wilson’s 2002 trip to Niger, the ex-ambassador discovered that
claims about Iraq trying to buy yellowcake uranium were almost certainly bogus.
But Wilson’s findings – which were later corroborated by United
Nations officials – would remain politically sensitive because they undercut
Bush’s assertions about Iraqi nuclear ambitions, a central rationale for
invading Iraq in March 2003.
On July 6, 2003, three months after the U.S.-led invasion, Wilson disclosed
his Niger findings in a New York Times op-ed article that represented an early
crack in the president’s credibility on the Iraq War.
Bush Spin Machine
The Bush spin machine quickly whirled into action, even though it was clear
by July 2003 that Bush was wrong about the existence of large caches of Iraqi
weapons of mass destruction as well as about an active nuclear weapons program.
Still, the goal in summer 2003 was to discredit Joe Wilson.
It was in that context that the secret about Plame’s covert role as a
CIA officer working on WMD issues was somehow delivered to the White House.
From there, the sensitive fact, which also could have jeopardized the lives
of other operatives who were cooperating with Plame, was fashioned into a public-relations
attack on her husband.
Rather than keep the secret under tight control, Bush’s White House bandied
it about as a way to question Wilson’s manhood, as a guy who needed his
wife’s intervention to get him a job – although Plame appears only
to have mentioned her husband as one Africa expert suitable for the Niger assignment.
To professional U.S. intelligence officers, the notion of sharing such a precise
secret – the identity of an undercover CIA officer – with a spinmeister
like Rove is anathema.
From a national security viewpoint, it also doesn’t matter much whether
Rove used Plame’s name. He certainly gave Time magazine enough information
– that Joe Wilson’s wife was a CIA officer – to unmask her
identity with a little bit of research.
But again, the national news media seems to have missed the forest for the
trees. By concentrating on whether Rove specifically spoke Plame’s name
to Cooper, the media is missing the significance of the fact that a political
operative like Rove would have a hand in this operation at all.
The larger point is that senior White House officials, possibly including Bush,
revealed the identity of a covert CIA officer as part of what appears to be
a conspiracy to discredit Wilson in retaliation for telling the truth in his
The key incriminating fact in this mystery is that Rove had no reason to know
who Plame was, except as part of a public relations attack against her husband.
It was a classic case of dirtying up – or punishing – the messenger
for delivering unwanted news.
It also fits with the long-running neoconservative strategy of using “perception
management” techniques to “controversialize” critics and keep
the American people in a constant state of confusion. [For more on the evolution
of those strategies, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy
& Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
In the Plame case, there also was identifiable harm to national security –
the outing of a covert CIA officer working on WMD issues – and a possible
violation of a federal law that bars willful disclosure of secret agents. That
is why federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was assigned to investigate the
matter two years ago.
At minimum, the White House behavior indicates gross negligence in handling
a sensitive secret. But if the case were simply negligence, heads probably would
have rolled long ago. Any administration serious about protecting national security
would have carried out stern disciplinary actions even as Fitzgerald’s
In the Iran-Contra Affair, for instance, Ronald Reagan fired aides Oliver North
and John Poindexter on Nov. 25, 1986, the day the scandal was revealed, rather
than wait for the conclusion of a criminal probe.
On April 30, 1973, as the Watergate scandal was unfolding, Richard Nixon ousted
chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman and White
House counsel John Dean. Nixon famously promised “no whitewash at the
By contrast, George W. Bush has taken no known disciplinary action against
anyone for letting the identity of a covert CIA officer leak out. Rove played
a prominent role in Bush's reelection campaign and has since been promoted to
deputy White House chief of staff.
Nor has Bush done anything to discourage his right-wing supporters from denigrating
Wilson, who gets routinely mocked as a flaky self-promoter or a partisan Democrat.
These orchestrated attacks on Wilson have continued despite the fact that U.S.
government investigations – including several ordered by Bush himself
– have corroborated the absence of a pre-invasion Iraqi nuclear weapons
So, this long-term pattern of White House behavior suggests that negligence
isn’t the whole story. Rather it looks as if the dissemination of Plame’s
identity may have crossed the line into a criminal conspiracy at the highest
levels of the U.S. government.
For two years now, what has been lacking from the White House is a coherent
explanation of how the information about Plame’s identity got from the
cloistered world of the CIA to White House meetings and then into the hands
of political adviser Rove.
Long ago, there should have been answers to the following questions:
--What national security purpose was served by giving Karl Rove a sensitive
secret that, if leaked, could endanger the lives of covert intelligence operatives?
--Who attended White House meetings at which Wilson’s disclosures and
Plame’s identity were discussed? How was Plame’s identity brought
into these talks? By whom?
--Was George W. Bush present at any of these meetings? As the president, who
is ultimately responsible for decisions about national security secrets, did
Bush say anything about Wilson and Plame? If so, what did he say and to whom?
--Did Bush or anyone else in the White House order Rove to disparage Wilson?
In a healthy democracy, the news media would have demanded answers before Election
2004, rather than focusing primarily on the plight of several journalists caught
up in demands for testimony from prosecutor Fitzgerald.
Ironically, it was the caving in by Time magazine last week that has opened
the door slightly into the long-running White House cover-up of the Plame case.
But still the major news media misses the bigger picture.
The answer to the Plame mystery is not the Watergate advice of “follow
the money” or even the obvious question of who spilled the beans to Novak.
Instead, the route to the heart of this mystery is to follow the trail from
who knew Plame’s identity at the CIA through the White House meetings
to Karl Rove.