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July 14, 2003: Columnist Outs CIA Agent, Apparently to Discredit Administration Critic

Robert Novak.Robert Novak. [Source: MediaBistro (.com)]Conservative columnist Robert Novak, after being told by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and White House political guru Karl Rove that Valerie Plame Wilson is a CIA officer (see July 8, 2003), writes a syndicated op-ed column that publicly names her as a CIA officer. The column is an attempt to defend the administration from charges that it deliberately cited forged documents as “evidence” that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger (see July 6, 2003). It is also an attempt to discredit Joseph Wilson, Plame Wilson’s husband, who had gone to Niger at the behest of the CIA to find out whether the Iraq-Niger story was true (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003). Novak characterizes Wilson’s findings—that an Iraqi deal for Nigerien uranium was highly unlikely—as “less than definitive,” and writes that neither CIA Director George Tenet nor President Bush were aware of Wilson’s report before the president’s 2003 State of the Union address where he stated that Iraq had indeed tried to purchase uranium from Niger (see 9:01 pm January 28, 2003). Novak writes: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials [Armitage and Rove, though Novak does not name them] told me that Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. ‘I will not answer any question about my wife,’ Wilson told me.” Wilson’s July 6 op-ed challenging the administration’s claims (see July 6, 2003) “ignite[d] the firestorm,” Novak writes. [Town Hall (.com), 7/14/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 312-313] Novak also uses the intelligence term “agency operative,” identifying her as a covert agent and indicating that he is aware of her covert status. Later, though, Novak will claim that he came up with the identifying phrase independently, and did not know of her covert status. [American Prospect, 7/19/2005]
Asked Not to Print Plame Wilson's Name - Novak will later acknowledge being asked by a CIA official not to print Plame Wilson’s name “for security reasons.” Intelligence officials will say they thought Novak understood there were larger reasons than Plame Wilson’s personal security not to publish her name. Novak will say that he did not consider the request strong enough to follow (see September 27, 2003 and October 1, 2003). [Washington Post, 9/28/2003] He will later reveal the CIA official as being agency spokesman Bill Harlow, who asked him not to reveal Plame’s identity because while “she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment… exposure of her agency identity might cause ‘difficulties’ if she travels abroad.” In 2008, current White House press secretary Scott McClellan will write: “This struck Novak as an inadequate reason to withhold relevant information from the public. Novak defended his actions by asserting that Harlow had not suggested that Plame or anybody else would be endangered, and that he learned Plame’s name (though not her undercover identity) from her husband’s entry in the well-known reference book Who’s Who in America.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 173-174] McClellan will note, “Whether war, smear job, or PR offensive gone haywire, the CIA took the leak of Plame’s name very seriously.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 174]
Plame Wilson Stricken - According to Wilson’s book The Politics of Truth, his wife’s first reaction is disbelief at Novak’s casual destruction of her CIA career. “Twenty years of loyal service down the drain, and for what?” she asks. She then makes a checklist to begin assessing and controlling the damage done to her work. She is even more appalled after totalling up the damage. Not only are the lives of herself and her family now endangered, but so are those of the people with whom she has worked for 20 years (see July 14, 2003). [New York Times, 5/12/2004] In 2005, Joseph Wilson will tell a reporter: “[Y]ou can assume that even if 150 people read the Novak article when it appeared, 148 of them would have been the heads of intelligence sections at embassies here in Washington and by noon that day they would have faxing her name or telexing her name back to their home offices and running checks on her: whether she had ever been in the country, who she may have been in contact with, etc.” [Raw Story, 7/13/2005]
Intimidation of Other Whistle-Blowers? - In 2007, author Craig Unger will write: “The implication from the administration was that the CIA’s selection of Wilson was somehow twisted because his wife was at the CIA. But, more importantly, the administration had put out a message to any and all potential whistle-blowers: if you dare speak out, we will strike back. To that end, the cover of Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA operative specializing in WMD, had been blown by a White House that was supposedly orchestrating a worldwide war against terror.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 312-313]
Outing about Iraq, Not Niger, Author Says - In 2006, author and media critic Frank Rich will write: “The leak case was about Iraq, not Niger. The political stakes were high only because the scandal was about the unmasking of an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a CIA operative who posed for Vanity Fair. The real victims were the American people, not the Wilsons. The real culprits—the big enchilada, in John Ehrlichman’s Nixon White House lingo—were not the leakers but those who provoked a war in Iraq for their own motives and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from the fight against those who did attack America on 9/11, and had since regrouped to deadly effect.… Without Iraq, there never would have been a smear campaign against an obscure diplomat or the bungled cover-up [that followed]. While the Bush White House’s dirty tricks, like [former President] Nixon’s, were prompted in part by a ruthless desire to crush the political competition at any cost, this administration had upped the ante by playing dirty tricks with war.” [Rich, 2006, pp. 184]
Elevating Profile of Controversy - In 2008, McClellan will write, “By revealing Plame’s status, Novak inadvertently elevated the Niger controversy into a full-blown scandal.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 173]

Entity Tags: Scott McClellan, Robert Novak, Valerie Plame Wilson, Richard Armitage, George J. Tenet, Joseph C. Wilson, Bill Harlow, Bush administration (43), Karl C. Rove, Central Intelligence Agency, Frank Rich, George W. Bush, Craig Unger

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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