Former CIA Officer Says 'Outed' Ambassador's Wife Was Undercover

Jeff Johnson | Congressional Bureau Chief | Thursday, October 02, 2003

Former CIA Officer Says 'Outed' Ambassador's Wife Was Undercover

Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Syndicated columnist Robert Novak drew criticism Wednesday from a former CIA officer for a July 14 column identifying a woman who was, at the time, working undercover for the agency. Novak insisted in his column Wednesday that Valerie Plame's employment with the CIA was not a secret.

Counter-terrorism expert and former CIA Officer Larry Johnson told CNSNews.com that Plame, the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a covert operative for the intelligence agency and that every mission in which she was involved is now in jeopardy as a result of her public alleged "outing."

"It depends upon what operation she was involved with, it depends upon what people from foreign countries she was meeting with," Johnson said. "It can affect a whole web of activity and compromise a lot of activity."

Johnson said that any number of people could be put in danger and missions could be compromised as a result of Plame's identity becoming public knowledge.

"For example, if she was operating using a business cover to get access to companies that were possible distributors for precursors for chemical and biological weapons and had developed relationships and was worming her way on the inside, if you will," Johnson explained, "that could completely compromise and destroy that kind of operation."

But Novak argued in his column Wednesday that Plame's work for the CIA was "not much of a secret."

"At the CIA, the official designated to talk to me...asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment, but that exposure of her name might cause 'difficulties' if she travels abroad," Novak explained. "He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered.

"If he had," Novak added, "I would not have used her name."

Johnson, who worked as a CIA officer for four years before becoming a private counter-terrorism and intelligence consultant with the Business Exposure Reduction Group, said Novak seems to have missed the point.

"They asked him, 'Please don't use her name,' and, you know, I don't know how much clearer you can make it," Johnson stressed. "'Please don't use her name,' and he used it."

What job Plame holds with the intelligence agency is "irrelevant," Johnson said. He also dismissed arguments that Plame was "merely an analyst" as attempts to distract the public from the alleged leak of classified information, calling the move "a pretty thin smokescreen."

"She is undercover, and this attempt to try to maintain that it was no big deal because she was some sort of overt employee, she was not an overt employee," Johnson said. "I don't know what she was doing. I do know that she's not an analyst, and I don't need to know what she was doing 'cause that's classified."

Novak also denied that the "two senior administration officials" to which he referred in the July 14 column work at the White House.

"I did not receive a planned leak," Novak claimed. "The published report that somebody in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue."

Wilson told ABC News' Nightline anchor Ted Koppel Tuesday night that he still blames senior White House advisor Karl Rove for the alleged leak.

"What I do know or what I have confidence in, based upon what respectable press people in this town have told me, is that a week after the Novak article came out, Karl Rove was still calling around, talking to press people, saying, 'Wilson's wife is fair game,'" Wilson charged. "Whether [the reporters] initiated the call or received the call, I don't know. But the gist of the message that was reported back to me right after the phone call was: 'I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He tells me your wife is fair game.'"

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz supported Wilson's version of the events leading up to his wife being linked to the CIA in Wednesday's edition of that newspaper.

"A half-dozen other journalists were given the same information about Wilson's wife by administration officials but declined to publish it," Kurtz reported. "One exception was Time magazine, which posted the information on its website in July as part of a piece questioning whether the White House was waging bureaucratic war against Wilson."

The alleged leak occurred after Wilson visited Niger on behalf of the CIA to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium there for his nuclear weapons program. Wilson discounted the claims and became a publicly vocal opponent of the war against Iraq. He believes the administration leaked his wife's name in retaliation for that criticism and to intimidate other critics of the president's foreign policy.

Johnson said if that was the goal, it might well succeed.

"What's so dangerous about this is, it is an effort by political partisans to involve the intelligence agency in something that they shouldn't be involved with," Johnson said, adding he knows other clandestine officers who are "in a similar position to Joe Wilson's wife, that they could be compromised.

"If it could happen to her, why could it not happen to them?" Johnson asked. "So, it sends a message: Don't get yourself involved in anything that's controversial. Don't be involved with bringing bad news to the White House. And it has a chilling effect."

Johnson, a registered Republican who has contributed to President Bush, said the alleged leak was "the most egregious one I've seen" but added political party is not a relevant factor.

"It doesn't matter who the president is, Republican or Democrat, there's always political pressure brought on the analytical community to tell a particular story, depending upon what the issues are," Johnson concluded. "But to 'out' an officer?...It's a political attack."

See Earlier Story:
Justice Department Ignores Democrats' Calls for Special Counsel (Oct. 1, 2003)

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