Bush Administration Officials Face Lawsuit for Role in Leak of CIA Operative's Identity

The CIA leak saga did not end with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's conviction this week. On top of his lengthy appeals, he and senior Bush administration officials face a lawsuit for their role in the exposure of a former CIA operative.

Valerie Plame believes the administration violated her constitutional rights by leaking her identity to reporters in 2003, and she is demanding compensation. Her attorneys believe the case could reveal more about the inner workings of the Bush White House than surfaced during Libby's monthlong trial.

Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney, White House political adviser Karl Rove and former State Department Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage are named in the case. So far, it has been a matter of dueling legal briefs. Lawyers are due in court this May for a hearing on whether it should be thrown out.

Plame's attorney acknowledges he has to clear some tall hurdles to persuade a judge that she and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had their free speech, due process and privacy rights violated.

Several Bush administration officials leaked Plame's identity to reporters after Wilson began criticizing prewar intelligence on Iraq. Nobody was charged with the leak, which would have been a crime only if someone had knowingly given out classified information. Libby was convicted Tuesday of obstructing the leak investigation and lying about how he learned about Plame.

"The Libby trial makes abundantly clear there was wrongdoing going on at the highest levels of our government, and that's what this case is about," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who will argue Plame's lawsuit.

Though Libby's criminal case and Plame's civil suit involve a similar background, his conviction won't bolster her case because they involve different charges.

In the wake of Libby's conviction, lawyers for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group that also represents Plame and Wilson, quickly began talking about gathering evidence and putting officials under oath.

"The civil case may provide the American public with its only opportunity to hear directly from Vice President Cheney, Mr. Libby, Mr. Rove and Mr. Armitage about what really took place behind the scenes after Joe Wilson exposed the truth about the administration's justification for the Iraq war," said attorney Melanie Sloan, CREW's director.

But that's a long way off, and the hearing in May is only the first challenge they must meet to get there.

"It's an uphill battle," said constitutional lawyer Sheldon H. Nahmod, a University of Chicago professor who wrote a book on these types of lawsuits.

Plame's lawyers have to show that Cheney and the other defendants aren't immune from such lawsuits. To do that, her attorneys have to show the administration clearly violated the Constitution.

Cheney, Libby, Rove and Armitage have all said the case should be thrown out.

"Although the plaintiffs have a great deal to say — a grab bag of speculation, innuendo and newspaper clippings — they do not manage to state a valid claim for relief," Rove's attorneys wrote in court papers.

The Justice Department has also stepped into the case and asked that an invasion of privacy count be dropped because government officials cannot be held personally responsible for such claims when acting in their official capacity.

Legal scholars who have read the lawsuit say the immunity issue will be the biggest challenge and, because it involves an automatic appeal, one that could drag the case out. The underlying legal arguments, they say, are creative but not impossible to prove.

"If you can prove the government acted with ill will, you've basically made an equal protection argument," said Mark R. Brown, a professor at Capital University Law School in Ohio who has written a book about suing government officials for constitutional violations.

Plame and Wilson believe the Bush administration retaliated against them for Wilson's statements, thus violating his First Amendment rights. Libby testified before a grand jury that, while the White House was eager to reveal several flaws in Wilson's argument, outing his wife was never the goal.

Chemerinsky, Plame's lawyer, said the May 17 hearing will focus on constitutional law and the scope of prior Supreme Court cases. It won't be a political debate. Still, he said he understands the case is tinged with political intrigue.

"No one can ignore the fact that it's a lawsuit against the vice president, his top aide, the political adviser to the president and a key person at the State Department," he said. "It's the most important scandal in the administration and it's also tied to the war.

"The context couldn't be more political," he continued, "but the lawsuit is about two people who were injured."