The Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame Wilson controversy threatens to linger for months. Exhibit A is the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing Wednesday on President Bush’s commutation of the former vice-presidential aide’s jail sentence. He was convicted of lying about his role in identifying Mrs. Plame as a CIA officer.
Amid the political fisticuffs over Libby’s punishment, one important issue remains overlooked: exposing CIA officers, especially in wartime, is stupid, dangerous behavior. Many of my fellow Republicans have convinced themselves Mrs. Plame was not covert, so it’s no biggie that former State Department official Richard Armitage unmasked her to veteran columnist Robert Novak, who then published her identity.
“It was a desk job,” Rep. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said of Mrs. Plame’s duties. He added, on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “I think many people in Washington understood that her employment was at the CIA and she went to that office every day.”
These arguments crumble in two key ways: First, as a March 16 House Oversight Committee hearing demonstrated, Mrs. Plame indeed served undercover. “I was a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency,” Mrs. Plame swore. “I worked in the Counter-proliferation Division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified.”
Within the last five years, Mrs. Plame added, “I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions to find vital intelligence.” Like generals based overseas who remain generals while occupying Pentagon posts, Mrs. Plame said, “covert operations officers who are serving in the field, when they rotate back for a temporary assignment in Washington, they, too, are still covert.”
Either Mrs. Plame spoke the truth or she perjured herself before members of Congress, journalists, and TV cameras. If so, CIA Director Michael Hayden must have lied, too. He approved this statement to the committee: “At the time of the publication of Robert Novak’s column on July 14, 2003, Wilson’s [Mrs. Plame as wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson] CIA employment status was covert. This was classified information.”
Second, so what? Even if Mrs. Plame were not covert, naming her as a CIA officer was utterly reckless. Imagine a moderate Pakistani Muslim named Kamal who hates al Qaeda and wants to cleanse his Islamabad neighborhood of a bomb-making terrorist cell. He considers calling his neighbor, Mr. Donovan, who works at the U.S. Embassy and perhaps can help foil these wicked zealots. Then, Kamal clicks on al-Jazeera and witnesses all this hullabaloo about a CIA operative, sees her picture repeatedly, and listens to endless talk-show chatter on CNN International about her blown cover. Kamal wonders if someday Donovan might get dragged into the spotlight. And what might Kamal’s machete-wielding neighbors think if he were friends with an infidel spy? Kamal sighs, sips his tea, and shuts his mouth.
If Kamal stays quiet, why should overseas governments sing?
“Leaks like these undermine our ability to conduct liaison relationships with friendly foreign intelligence services because they are afraid these sorts of things will end up in the press, especially when we are at war,” says Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former intelligence officer. “This could cost American lives.”
Mr. Brookes also worries such fiascoes “could turn away bright young people who might want to join the agency but won’t now because they are afraid of being exposed and finding their lives in jeopardy.”
Libby’s defenders correctly ask why Richard Armitage completely has skated away. The State Department functionary who outed Mrs. Plame to Mr. Novak has endured no evident consequences for his at least careless and arguably unlawful loose lips. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald deserves the silver medal for aggravated injustice, just behind disgraced Duke Lacrosse persecutor Mike Nifong, who scored the gold. Mr. Fitzgerald knew all along that Mr. Armitage was Mr. Novak’s source, yet he told Mr. Armitage to hush while he maneuvered others into his cross hairs.
All this suggests mercy toward Libby, despite the inconvenient truth that a federal jury convicted him of perjury and obstruction of justice. All told, a key lesson of this entire sordid affair should be that, especially in war, bureaucrats and journalists should clam up about the names of CIA officers.
Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.