From Mata Hari to Valerie Plame

To be successful as undercover agents, operatives must remain under cover

Secrets

White House Indictment

October 29, 2005|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Just two blocks away from where the special prosecutor was announcing an indictment in the CIA leak case yesterday, an exhibit at the International Spy Museum was celebrating some of the best-known female spies in history.

The exhibit included bonnets used to conceal messages, chemicals that could change a person's skin tone and other tools of the trade. Photos of some spies - including Mata Hari - were also shown. But one was missing: the Revolutionary War spy known only as "355," her identification number. To this day, her real name remains a mystery.

Valerie Plame Wilson does not yet have a place in the exhibit, but if she one day makes the cut, there's no doubt she'll enter under her own, now well-known name.

She is the CIA agent whose identity was leaked to the media in the summer of 2003, prompting a grand jury investigation that resulted in a five-count indictment yesterday against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the vice president's chief of staff.

Even as special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald was announcing the indictment, visitors at the spy museum were learning just how important it is for spies to keep their identity a secret.

"It's everything," said Steve Barge, 38, of Arlington, Va. "I think the whole point of spying is to remain anonymous, or as anonymous as possible. It was very important that they complete the [Wilson leak] investigation and hopefully get to the root cause."

The exhibit notes, "Stereotypes of women as helpless and weak provide superb cover for female agents who are anything but helpless and weak." That wasn't news to Charlotte Rerko of Cleveland, who was visiting the museum with her family.

"It was interesting but not surprising," she said. "But I don't think in our culture that's been acknowledged."

While Rerko called the Wilson leak "scary" for the message it sends to other covert agents in the field, several spy museum-goers weren't even aware of the case or said it was too complicated to really understand.

Public lukewarm

Indeed, the media frenzy yesterday - set to boil after simmering for weeks - seemed to exceed public interest.

The media covered all bases yesterday, with crews set up at the White House, the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse where the grand jury was meeting, and at the Justice Department headquarters where Fitzgerald held a news conference.

It was there that journalists squished into elevators and stood in long lines to get copies of the indictment against Libby.

Even Fitzgerald noted the intense media attention in his news conference yesterday. "I think someone interviewed the person who shined my shoes the other day," he said.

After maintaining a public silence during his two-year investigation, Fitzgerald indulged the media to virtually no end yesterday.

His news conference lasted 67 minutes, as he was peppered with questions on everything from his take on the incestuous Washington political culture (no comment) to whether presidential adviser Karl Rove was off the hook (not touching that one).

Tired of both sides

Fitzgerald showed some weariness with Washington's entrenched political divisions. When asked how he would respond to critics who call him a partisan hack conducting a witch hunt, he responded, "Which party?"

It was also the first time the public heard the voice of Fitzgerald, after seeing his image - walking into the courthouse, walking out of the courthouse - so many times in recent days. The voice was what one might expect for a man whose real job is U.S. attorney for Chicago (although he grew up in Brooklyn): somewhat flat, slightly nasally.

He held his news conference on the seventh floor of the Justice Department, in a media room that some staffers said had never been so full. Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the hundred-plus journalists.

Three flat-screen TVs were tuned to CNN, where the words "Libby Indicted" were superimposed over an image of the man hobbling on crutches, as if physically beaten down by the events of the day. CNN also showed what the 22-page indictment looked like on the Web, drawing derisive comments from the assembled reporters.

"Thanks for broadening my world," said one. "What does it look like if you hold it in front a mirror? CNN Funhouse will continue after this. ... "

As Fitzgerald spoke, dozens of camera shutters snapped whenever he lifted his hand above the lectern, so it almost seemed as if he were conducting a symphony of journalists. The press didn't tire of asking questions, but after an hour, Fitzgerald's spokesman intervened.

"Let's assume we're winding down," the spokesman, Randall Samborn, said, "or I'm gonna have to give him water."

When the last questioner asked whether Harriet E. Miers' withdrawal as a Supreme Court nominee affected the timing of Fitzgerald's announcement, the special prosecutor would say only, "You did confuse me."

The feeling was mutual.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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