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WSJ and Toensing: I Outed Plame (Here We Go Again)

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Throughout my years in Washington, I've debated a lot of conservatives and Republicans. There are some for which I have no regard. There are others whom--though I disagree with them on politics and policy--I've considered friendlies: not quite friends, but people who are smart and whose company I enjoy, who are fun to drink and argue with. Among that group has been GOP lawyer Victoria Toensing. It certainly helped our relationship that years ago I was a friend of her daughter, a wonderful photojournalist. But I considered Toensing an intelligent and engaging lawyer, and we were able to hold civil conversations. I could even call her as a source--not that she ever provided any scoops.

So I am disheartened to see her embracing a rather idiotic conservative talking point and ignoring basic facts to tag me as the true culprit in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson. It is an argument that defies logic and the record. But it is an accusation that pro-Bush spinners have used to defend the true leakers and columnist Bob Novak, the conveyor of the leak. By propounding this charge, Toensing leads me (regretfully) to believe that she cares more about scoring points than serving the truth. Here is what she wrote in today's Wall Street Journal:

The first journalist to reveal Ms. Plame was "covert" was David Corn, on July 16, 2003, two days after Mr. Novak's column. The latter never wrote, because he did not know and it was not so, that Ms. Plame was covert. However, Mr. Corn claimed Mr. Novak "outed" her as an "undercover CIA officer," querying whether Bush officials blew "the cover of a U.S. intelligence officer working covertly in...national security." Was Mr. Corn subpoenaed? Did Mr. Fitzgerald subpoena Mr. Wilson to attest he had never revealed his wife's employment to anyone? If he had done so, he might have learned Mr. Corn's source.

This is a canard that has been previously advanced by other conservatives--all to absolve Novak and the actual leakers (mainly Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, not Richard Armitage). And you see the suggestion: that Joe Wilson told me that his wife was an undercover CIA officer and that I then disclosed this information to the public. I've debunked this before. But for Toensing's benefit, I'll go through this again--though I doubt it will do much good.

Here's what Novak, citing "two senior administration officials," wrote on July 14, 2003:

[Joseph] Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.

Novak's column is syndicated and is posted on the web. This information appeared, I assume, in hundreds of places. Other nations and foreign intelligence services now knew that Valerie Wilson was a CIA operative. At this point, her cover--whatever it might have been--was blown to bits. The fact that Novak did not state she was a "covert" operative is utterly meaningless. (Does the CIA employ non-secret "operatives"?)

As is now known--thanks to Hubris, the new book by Michael Isikoff and me--Valerie Wilson had been chief of operations for the Joint Task Force on Iraq within the CIA's clandestine Directorate of Operations. She was working under nonofficial cover (a deep version of covert status), but she no longer needed this NOC status and was shifting to official cover (meaning she would pretend to be a government official--say, a State Department officer--but not a CIA employee). In short, she was indeed an "operative." She had traveled overseas in the previous two years to oversee and monitor operations aimed at gathering intelligence on Iraq's supposed WMD programs. Novak didn't have information on her specific job, but he came quite close with his generic description of her.

Two days after the Novak column appeared, I published an article that was the first piece to suggest that the leak to Novak could be evidence of a White House crime--that is, a possible violation of Intelligence Identities Protection Act. That law makes it a felony for a government official to disclose identifying information about an undercover intelligence officer (if that government official knows the officer is covert). In the piece, I did not state as a fact that Valerie Wilson was a "covert" officer or a CIA employee of any kind. I did not know. After all, I hadn't spoken to Armitage, Rove or Libby about it. In my piece, I merely speculated that she might be a NOC and explored the possible ramifications of this outing (if indeed she was a NOC).

The reasoning underlying my supposition that Valerie Wilson might be a NOC was simple. Before I wrote the article, I spoke to Joe Wilson. He would not confirm or deny that what Novak wrote was true. He would not say whether or not his wife worked at the CIA. Wilson noted that his wife was known to friends as an energy analyst for a private firm, and added, "I will not answer questions about my wife." I placed that quote in the piece.

In the article, I noted that if Novak had gotten it right and if Valerie Wilson was a CIA operative, she had to be a NOC. Why? CIA officers who have "official cover" (and who, by the way, are sill considered "covert") tell people they work for the Defense Department, the State Department or some other part of the government. CIA officers working under nonofficial cover tell friends, relatives, associates that they are businesspeople, writers, consultants, tour guides or whatever--anything but a government official. So a CIA officer who informed acquaintances that she worked for a private energy firm would have to be a NOC. It's elementary.

Consequently, I noted in the article that Valerie Wilson was "apparently" a NOC--that is, if she were a CIA officer at all. The piece noted that if she were not in the CIA, "then the White House has wrongly branded a woman...as a CIA officer." That line is proof that I was supposing, not reporting. Unlike Novak, I had no facts about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment to disclose.

Feel free to look at that original article. If you do so, you will be conducting research that Toensing seemingly did not. And you will see that the article did not "reveal" anything about Valerie Wilson's position at the CIA. It was not the product of any investigative work. It was a piece of analysis. Thus, there was no need for special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to come knocking on my door. He chased after the reporters who received the real leaks. But clearly he could tell I was not in that elite category. I was never subpoenaed.

Toensing is flat-out wrong--sloppy wrong. Any intelligent lawyer who bothered to peruse the piece I wrote could discern that I was engaging in a thought exercise, not an act of disclosure. Besides, how can you out a CIA operative who has already been identified as a CIA operative in newspapers across the country?

Why would Toensing disregard the obvious? That's for her to explain. But I do hope she is more careful with evidence when it comes to her legal work. And I'm sorry that we will likely not be enjoying each other's company any time soon.
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This was also posted at www.davidcorn.com. For information on Hubris, click here.