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BYLINE: Vicky Ward
On a sunny Wednesday in mid-October a mixture of journalists, lobbyists, and the odd politician were sitting down to plates of cold salad in a stuffy dining room at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., when Valerie Plame (Wilson), wearing a sharp cream pantsuit, entered the room. The occasion was a lunch given by The Nation magazine's foundation and the Fertel Foundation to present the first Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling to her husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Surprisingly, given that Plame was at the center of a Justice Department investigation that could conceivably cause serious damage to the Bush administration, hardly anyone paused to take in the slim 40-year-old with white-blond hair and a big, bright smile. In July the syndicated conservative columnist Robert Novak published an item revealing that Plame was a C.I.A. "operative." The information had been leaked to him by "two senior [Bush] administration officials," who were trying to discredit a report her husband had done for the C.I.A.-the implication being that Wilson got the job only because his wife got it for him. Evidently the "two senior administration officials" did not realize it is a federal crime to knowingly reveal the identity of an undercover C.I.A. agent. As a result, Plame is now the most famous female spy in America-"Jane Bond," as her husband has referred to her. However, even in Washington circles, few people yet know what she looks like. Quietly she threaded her way around the tables until she reached Wilson, a handsome man with a full head of gray hair and dressed in a Zegna suit, pink shirt, and Hermes tie.
Plame kissed her husband's cheek fondly and took his hand. He looked thrilled to see her. They sat down side by side. Senator Jon Corzine, a Democrat from New Jersey, crossed the room to pump their hands. Suddenly necks craned and chairs swiveled as people tried not to stare too obviously at the telegenic couple who, together, have caused a maelstrom that some in the nation's capital feel may yet rise to the level of a Watergate.
Wilson, 54, is a retired American diplomat who wrote a July 6 op-ed piece for The New York Times that told of his February 2002 fact-finding mission to Niger, taken at the behest of the C.I.A. His mission was to verify-or disprove-an intelligence report that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy from Niger "yellowcake," a uranium ore, which can be used to make fissionable material. The information that Saddam did try to buy it found its way into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." This was a key piece of the president's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction-which in turn was Bush's main justification for going to war with that country.
But, on his trip, Wilson had found no evidence to substantiate the president's assertion. His New York Times piece was titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa." Had he been wrong?, he wondered in the article. Or had his information been ignored because it did not fit with the government's preconceptions about Iraq? On the Sunday his piece ran in the Times, Wilson appeared on NBC's Meet the Press to discuss it.
The article and the television appearance had two results. Officially, National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice admitted that the sentence should not have been in the president's speech, because the intelligence on which it was based was not good enough, and C.I.A. director George Tenet took the blame, saying that he was "responsible for the approval process in my agency." But then he added that the C.I.A. had warned the National Security Council that the intelligence was dubious, and some days later Stephen Hadley, the N.S.C. deputy, admitted he'd "forgotten" about seeing two memos from the agency debating the veracity of the intelligence. Still, the administration could argue-and did-that, technically, none of the words in the speech were actually inaccurate, because it cited British intelligence as the source.
In fact, a tug-of-war had been building for months between the C.I.A. and the Bush administration. The latter, it was felt at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, had been cherry-picking intelligence to suit its own purposes and, even worse, essentially cutting the C.I.A. and other agencies out of the general vetting of raw intelligence. By early summer the rope between the White House and Langley was stretched to the snapping point.
Then it did snap, catching Wilson and Plame with its frayed ends. On July 14, Novak wrote that Wilson's investigation was a "low level" C.I.A. project and that agency higher-ups had considered its conclusion "less than definitive." Wilson, after all, was merely a retired ambassador who had worked in Iraq just before the Gulf War. He currently operated as a business consultant in Washington, D.C. Novak wrote that the "two senior administration officials" told him that Wilson had been sent to Africa only because his wife of five years-Valerie Plame-an "agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," had suggested to her bosses that he go.
To most readers this information might have seemed harmless, but on July 22 Newsday's Knut Royce and Timothy M. Phelps reported that, according to their intelligence sources, Plame was an "undercover officer." In fact, she had noc status, that is, nonofficial cover. nocs are not ordinarily deskbound intelligence analysts who work inside C.I.A. headquarters. Mostly they operate abroad, frequently using fake job descriptions and sometimes fake names. According to a former senior C.I.A. officer, to blend in they often have to work two jobs: that of their "cover" and that involving their C.I.A. duties, which usually consists of handling foreign agents in the field, but can also involve recruiting them. nocs have no diplomatic protection and so are vulnerable to hostile regimes that can imprison or execute them without official repercussions. A noc's only real defense is his or her cover, which can take years to build. Because of this vulnerability, a noc's identity is considered within the C.I.A. to be, as former C.I.A. analyst Kenneth Pollack has put it, "the holiest of holies."
And, according to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, leaking the name of an undercover agent is also a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, under certain circumstances. When tv commentator Chris Matthews asked Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie if he thought such a leak made by …