Deadly repercussions

July 22, 2005|By Louis Hicks

SPECIAL Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald seems to be hunting for evidence of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the leak that exposed Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. But this case is about more than an illegal cover-up.

Ms. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had been sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate the possibility that Iraq had bought or was trying to buy "yellowcake" uranium there. President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address claimed that these efforts were evidence of Saddam Hussein's program of weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Wilson, a former ambassador, went public with his view that the intelligence case for Mr. Hussein's WMD had been exaggerated to justify the invasion.

To discredit Mr. Wilson and thus defend the decision to attack Iraq, someone apparently leaked the identity of his wife, implying that Mr. Wilson had been sent to Niger on some sort of junket at her behest. Ms. Plame was revealed to be a CIA agent in July 2003 by Robert Novak in his syndicated column.

Leaking the identity of an undercover intelligence agent can be a federal crime. The CIA referred the matter to the Justice Department. Mr. Fitzgerald and a special grand jury began an investigation. After almost two years of White House denials, at least one journalist, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, has identified senior White House officials Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby as sources for the leak.

The Plame affair is more than the latest "-gate" case. The leakers potentially devastated the CIA's efforts to gather intelligence about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the law has a responsibility to prosecute those who compromise the sources and methods of American intelligence.

When a CIA agent's cover is blown, dozens of other undercover operatives usually are unveiled at the same time. Sensitive sources overseas are often exposed, and people who had trusted the U.S. have to flee for their lives.

Intelligence agencies hide the true employers of their undercover agents. They set up legitimate corporations, at considerable expense, that "hire" the agency personnel. This nonofficial cover provides an agent with a job title, a building, an office, a boss, a telephone number, a paycheck, a corporate e-mail address, a health care card, tax documents and a corporate charge card - all the trappings of a real job with no apparent link to the intelligence service. For a cover to be plausible, the company must be real: It has to do legitimate work of some kind that has a plausible connection to what the agents pass themselves off as being.

Unfortunately, it is not considered practical to set up a separate business for every single undercover agent. The expense would be staggering. Instead, agents are usually grouped together. Dozens of them work for each of the agency's front companies. They get "hired" and eventually "retire" or "resign."

Therefore, if a foreign intelligence service discovers that Ms. Plame is a CIA agent under nonofficial cover working for a fake company, it's not a leap of faith to assume that every CIA agent who had the same cover as Ms. Plame is now permanently damaged goods, never again able to burrow as deeply under cover as before.

Indeed, a smart intelligence agency will just give up and bring all these agents topside into cubicles far from the action of gathering intelligence. Any estimate of the loss of intelligence investment would have to start in the tens of millions of dollars.

The outing of Ms. Plame quite possibly revealed the identities of dozens of CIA personnel who were working clandestinely overseas. It potentially destroyed a significant proportion of U.S. overseas information sources about WMD.

Foreign intelligence agencies, friend and foe alike, probably have been scrutinizing every interaction that anyone had with Ms. Plame's fake company. Such backward checking is precisely why some governments keep such detailed records of who talks to whom and about what sensitive subjects.

It is not a stretch to imagine that countless CIA contacts around the world have been hauled into secret interrogation rooms and asked some very pointed questions. Valuable sources of intelligence, intended to provide information to policymakers in order to prevent the next 9/11, probably have been compromised. This is, after all, nuclear espionage, for which even the United States has executed people.

One can hope that the special counsel is only chasing a perjurious executive branch staffer, but it's our collective national security that has been permanently damaged.

Louis Hicks is a professor of sociology at St. Mary's College of Maryland, where he specializes in military sociology. He served in military intelligence during the Cold War.

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