Last week we learned that Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, has the juice to push Anna Nicole Smith off the radar screen.
Just when I thought America actually couldn’t get enough news about the deceased Ms. Smith, along came the jury decision in the case of Mr. Libby versus Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and all those who purport to be aghast at the behavior of Scooter.
What can we learn from this? Here’s what I took away from the case:
--The jury didn’t believe that Mr. Libby had, as claimed, a tenuous grasp of dates and “what was said when”
--The jury may or may not have been swayed by the nickname “Scooter”
--The Democrats view Mr. Libby’s conviction on four of the five counts as proof that Vice President Cheney is, in fact, Hannibal Lecter
--The Republicans find themselves wishing the story would go away, but then again, it keeps Iraq off the front page
--Apparently, the best we could do back in early 2002 to investigate the possible sale of yellowcake uranium from Niger to Sadaam’s Iraq regime was to send a former State Department administrative officer turned ambassador to poke around and talk with some folks… What?
Yes, that’s correct. For those of you who haven’t been diligently following the story… back in February 2002, before the decision was finalized to use the military option in Iraq, our intelligence on the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons development within Iraq unfortunately was abysmal.
How bad was it? It was so bad, that instead of Jack Bauer, we sent former Ambassador Joseph Wilson on a very overt mission in the hope that his diplomatic experience and in-country contacts could shed some light on the issue.
Now, Mr. Wilson served in Africa for many years… first as a general services officer, then an administrative officer, ultimately returning as an ambassador in Africa with the first President Bush’s administration. So lots of experience in the region.
But did anyone at the time-- and I really mean anyone-- say to themselves… “… hmmm, little disappointing that we gotta send that Ambassador feller when what we really need is a little covert intelligence gathering…”
Apparently, either no one thought it was odd or no one had a better operational plan. Scary isn’t it?
This particular question-- why did we think our best option in tracking down intelligence related to this critical issue was best left to a former ambassador, smart as he might be?--is actually as disconcerting as the issue that later took center stage and ultimately resulted in Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald collaring Scooter: the “outing” in journalist Robert Novak’s column of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson, Ambassador Wilson's wife.
There’s been all sorts of angst, wailing and end-of-the-world predictions coming from people, some well meaning and some politically driven, who say that the identification of Plame as a CIA officer was treacherous, terrible and possibly criminal. Wilson, in what could be interpreted as an overblown view of oneself, believes the “outing” was done by the administration’s evil cabal in an effort to get back at him for his criticism of the Iraq war.
Some see it in less nefarious terms… journalists digging for news and administration folks being indiscreet without malicious intent.
You could be excused for being confused over what Plame’s role was at the Agency and what is meant by “her cover was blown.” There have been widely different reports in the media regarding her job description and the extent to which she was or wasn’t “under cover.” Reading through the various accounts, Plame is at turns described as an “operative” (Agency personnel in the operations directorate are “officers” by the way, not operatives, agents or spies) or an “NOC” (non-official cover officer, meaning working without any overt connections to the U.S. government), or a Jennifer Garner/Alias-like character or an analyst.
A Vanity Fair article on Plame, which pretty much cemented the “my cover is blown” concern, gushed about her super-double secret extra-deep cover status. David Korn of The Nation seemed enamored of the acronym NOC when describing her position within the Agency. It was a coverpalooza… folks in the media trying to accurately depict her job within the Agency without really knowing cover details from Shinola.
For those of you not read up on the use of "cover" in the world of intelligence, there are different types of cover… some requiring extensive preparation and backstopping (such as non-official cover)… and others which are official, such as working for other government organizations. By the way, no secrets were harmed or killed during the writing of this column. All this stuff relating to the use of cover has previously been disclosed by persons unable to keep their yaps shut. So I’m covering ground that’s already been plowed. I’m just putting it in layman’s terms.
The simple truth is that, if you start your career under official cover, perhaps as an embassy officer working overseas, you will not then be moved into a non-official cover capacity. The whole point of non-official cover is to be distanced from/unconnected to the U.S. government. Officers do not bounce back and forth between the two worlds. I mention this in an effort to explain that Plame, who reportedly started in an official capacity with the U.S. government, and later was married to a relatively high profile U.S. official, would not be a logical choice for non-official cover or in fact any cover that would require significant resources to establish and maintain.
Someone in this situation may from time to time use some basic “off the shelf” cover facility that would facilitate a particular overseas trip. You don’t expend time, energy and company resources on putting someone with obvious past and present ties to the U.S. government into a “deep” cover position.
Anyway, to close the loop on my version of The Libby Trial for Dummies, the implication was that former Ambassador Wilson was selected for the Niger getaway in part because of his wife’s role at the CIA. I suspect he was chosen primarily because he was one of the few guys around who both spoke French and could find Niger on a map.
Wilson’s visit resulted in his conclusion that the story about Iraq trying to purchase the uranium from Niger was baseless. Later, after the administration cited the possible connection in the president’s January 2003 speech, and following the military takedown of Sadaam’s regime, Wilson began eloquently ranting against the administration’s use or perceived misuse of intelligence.
Then came Novak’s column citing Plame’s Agency ties. That led to cries of treason over how an Agency employee’s name came to be released to the media, which resulted in huge amounts of methane gas being produced by the media, the special prosecutor’s office, the Democratic Party and defenders of the administration, as they all took turns banging on about it for their own various agendas. This then resulted in global warming which ultimately produced one of the coldest winters on record and an Oscar for Al Gore.
I hope the chronology is clear. What’s also interesting in this whole expensive, convoluted matter is that apparently there were only a dozen or so people inside the Beltway who were unaware of Plame’s Agency affiliation. Seems like the cover wasn’t so deep and the secret not so secretive. As best I can tell, then former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage mentioned it casually and without apparent malice during at least a couple conversations with journalists, including Bob Woodward and the afore mentioned Robert Novak.
Apparently Armitage became aware of it while reading classified extra-sensitive don’t-you-dare-disclose-this stuff super-duper classified cables that received about the same dissemination as CNN Headline News. He apparently didn’t know it was classified because there was no disclaimer on the cable stating “Whoever reads this cable should most certainly not provide the name of anybody mentioned in this cable as working for the CIA to any journalist and especially not Robert Novak and that means you buddy.”
I mention this simply because I’m a bit retentive and believe all the garbage reported to date deserves some context. None of this of course negates the fact that it is wrong to identify, regardless of their position or job responsibilities, an individual who works for the CIA or for that matter, any element of the U.S. intel community. I don’t care whether the person is an operations officer, an analyst or an administrative officer. It shouldn’t happen.
Which makes me ask the same question I’ve been asking since this thing became a potboiler… why hasn't Robert Novak gotten in trouble for mentioning Plame’s occupation? I’m sure there’s plenty of legalese to help answer that question, but to the average guy (aka me) it’s odd how he managed to skate while the special prosecutor proved to be such a bulldog in pursuing Scooter for charges unrelated to the original purpose of the investigation.
But that’s just my opinion. Let me know yours.
By the way, we’re getting some terrific responses from readers to our question…”What keeps you up at night?” Let me know what issues in the world of security, terrorism, homeland defense and intelligence have you tossing and turning. We’ll be featuring some of the excellent responses in future columns. Stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, and appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker also serves as a script consultant and advisor within the entertainment industry, lending his technical expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," and the major motion pictures "Proof of Life" and "Spy Games."