Leak Accusation Stirs White House

Times Staff Writer

The White House struggled Monday to fend off pressure for an external probe into whether administration officials deliberately -- and illegally -- “outed” an undercover CIA agent in retribution for her husband’s criticism of President Bush’s prewar claims about Iraq.

Top administration officials, including political advisor Karl Rove, issued denials Monday that they were behind the disclosure of the woman’s identity, even while the Justice Department said it had launched a preliminary investigation and senior Democrats on Capitol Hill demanded the appointment of a special counsel.

The issue has metastasized into a mini-scandal with such speed that many in Washington, including the White House, appear to have been caught off-guard.


The allegations suddenly threatened to pose a major problem for an administration that prides itself on avoiding the culture of leaks and swirling criminal probes that waylaid its predecessor on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It is a classic Washington whodunit, with speculation swirling around the Beltway on Monday over the identities of the “two senior administration officials” who passed the CIA officer’s name to conservative columnist Robert Novak.

But the time-honored game of guessing reporters’ sources has higher stakes in this case because it centers on the White House’s prewar claims about Iraq’s nuclear program, appears to have cost a CIA operative her clandestine career, and the culprits, if caught, could face up to 10 years in prison.

“My sense is this was not casually done, this was retaliation,” said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has jurisdiction over the matter.

Though most investigations of leaks fizzle like “ ‘Casablanca’ with a rounding-up of the usual suspects,” Harman said, “I think this one is not going to die. I think there’s enormous interest. If what’s alleged here actually happened, it was wrong, it was a violation of law, and an example has to be set.”

What actually happened is still emerging, but it was triggered by an opinion piece written in early July by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The article, printed July 6 in the New York Times, questioned President Bush’s assertion that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.


Wilson disclosed that a year earlier he had traveled to Niger on an assignment for the CIA to investigate those uranium allegations and found them baseless. The piece prompted questions that still persist about why the administration made such claims amid evidence that they were unfounded.

Eight days later, syndicated columnist Novak wrote a piece defending the White House and arguing that Wilson’s trip to Niger was done not at the behest of the administration but was arranged by his wife, Valerie Plame, “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.”

The disclosure of her name and job attracted little attention at the time. The CIA, as obligated by law, referred the leak to the Justice Department later in July. But it didn’t complete the paperwork until mid-September. It was the disclosure of the completed referral over the weekend that triggered the uproar.

By some accounts, the administration approached a number of news organizations in July, dangling details on Wilson’s wife’s position at the agency. The Washington Post on Sunday quoted “an administration aide” as saying that six reporters received cold calls from administration officials.

The Post quoted Wilson as saying that NBC’s Andrea Mitchell got one of the calls. “I would not discuss sources,” Mitchell said when asked about that Monday.

But speaking on condition of anonymity, one top political and communications strategist close to the White House expressed skepticism that any senior White House officials leaked the information.

“It’s not how anybody leaks,” the strategist said. “You know us. We’re pros. If you want to leak, you call one reporter.”

On CNN, where Novak serves as a commentator, he said Monday, “Nobody in the White House called me to leak me this.” Instead, Novak said he was interviewing a “senior administration official” who told him of Wilson’s wife’s identity, and that he confirmed it with another administration source.

Observers in Washington have expressed bafflement that administration officials would play such high-risk politics for such dubious payback: gambling that identifying the wife of a retired diplomat would somehow taint the diplomat’s report throwing cold water on the uranium allegations. But Wilson remains convinced that the leak was designed to punish him.

“That’s just purely reprehensible,” he said in an interview Monday. He said he believes the Bush White House was “intimately involved in this.”

“At the minimum, Karl Rove condoned it after the fact, because he continued to speak about it for days afterward as if my wife were fair game,” he said.

Rove curtly denied any role in leaking Wilson’s wife’s name. Asked by an ABC News reporter Monday outside his home in Washington whether he was Novak’s source, the top White House aide replied, “No.”

At his daily briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan also came to Rove’s defense, describing as “ridiculous” any suggestions that Rove may have been involved.

“There is simply no truth to that suggestion,” the spokesman said. “And I have spoken with Karl about it.”

Aside from Rove, McClellan said the White House had no plans to “go down the White House directory of every single staff member and play that game” of asking them if they were the source of the news leak.

The president studiously avoided the controversy Monday. After an afternoon bill-signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room, Bush ignored one reporter who asked in a booming voice whether the president had identified the source of the information.

Democrats jumped on the story. At least two presidential candidates, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, called for independent investigations.

Leading Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, sent a letter to President Bush and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Monday calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the leaks.

The letter said the lawmakers “do not believe” that the investigation could be handled by the Justice Department because of the “obvious and inherent conflicts of interest involved.” But McClellan brushed aside such calls, arguing there was no information -- beyond “media reports” based on anonymous sources -- that links the White House to the leak.

Thus, he indicated, the president had no intention of launching an internal inquiry into the matter. McClellan said that the Justice Department was the proper agency and that the White House would cooperate fully with any such investigation.

McClellan added that Bush regarded the leaking of classified information as “a very serious matter, and it should be pursued to the fullest extent by the appropriate agency. And the appropriate agency is the Department of Justice.”

And if a senior administration official were involved, McClellan added, “they would no longer be in this administration ... at a minimum -- at a minimum.”

A Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo, said the department is conducting a “preliminary investigation” into the alleged leak to determine whether a full-blown investigation is warranted.

Corallo said the probe was being jointly handled by the FBI and career attorneys in the counterespionage section of the department’s criminal division.

Novak said the CIA asked him not to disclose Plame’s name, “but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else,” and that he was led to believe that she was “an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives.”

Novak was wrong on those accounts, according to the CIA. “We wouldn’t file a crimes report” if the case didn’t involve an agent undercover, a U.S. official said.

A 1982 federal law specifically prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a clandestine intelligence officer. Nobody has been prosecuted under the law, said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

U.S. intelligence officials declined to discuss details of the case, but said exposing an operative’s identity is a serious breach with unpredictable consequences. It not only deprives the operative of being able to work undercover in the future, but threatens to expose her sources, some of whom may be risking their lives to share secrets with the CIA. Outing an officer also places in jeopardy any CIA operative who replaces her in her overseas “cover,” often a diplomatic post at a U.S. embassy.

The official said the agency is obligated under federal law to refer leaks of classified information to the Justice Department. The agency refers about 50 such leaks a year, the official said.

Congress passed the 1982 law after a former CIA operative, Philip Agee, launched a campaign in the 1970s to expose sensitive CIA operations and to identify CIA officers around the world. Some intelligence experts believe Agee’s high-profile campaign helped create the climate that led to the 1975 assassination of Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, Greece, by an ultra-leftist group.

Agee was stripped of his U.S. citizenship in 1979, and he was last known to be running a travel agency in Havana, Cuba. But he stopped publicly identifying U.S. intelligence operatives after the law was passed, Aftergood said.

“People leak things day in and day out about government officials, their spouses and their pets,” Aftergood said. But he said the Wilson case “is a unique circumstance ... and the proposed motivation is unusually sordid.”

“The idea is, as far as I can understand it, that Wilson would be discomfited somehow by the exposure of his wife,” Aftergood said. “It’s a particularly nasty attempt to silence a critic, if that is what happened here.”

Only one person has been convicted of leaking classified information to the media, which is also illegal but falls under a different statute than the law protecting identities of intelligence agents.

Navy intelligence analyst Samuel L. Morison provided satellite photographs of Soviet installations to Jane’s Defence Weekly in 1984. He was pardoned by President Clinton in 2001.


Times staff writers Bob Drogin, Edwin Chen, Richard Schmitt and Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.