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Memo May Hold Key to CIA Leak

Times Staff Writers

Prosecutors investigating whether Bush administration officials disclosed the name of an undercover CIA operative to news reporters have focused on a 2003 State Department memo that investigators believe might help point to the source of the leak, according to those directly familiar with the proceedings.

The memo detailed how a former diplomat was chosen to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from the African nation of Niger, and it included a description of the role that the CIA operative, who was the diplomat’s wife, played in suggesting his name for the assignment.

Prosecutors have been asking key witnesses whether they had seen the document.

The former diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson IV, came to national attention in July 2003 after he wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times suggesting that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence to exaggerate Baghdad’s nuclear weapons program and justify the invasion of Iraq. After his article appeared, his wife’s name and CIA status were leaked to columnist Robert Novak in what critics of the administration have alleged was an act of retribution.

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A probe was launched in 2003 to determine whether anyone deliberately leaked the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame. It is a felony to knowingly reveal the identity of covert personnel.

The memo was sent by State Department officials to then- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who according to news reports has testified before the grand jury. Powell had the memo with him on Air Force One when President Bush traveled to Africa on July 7, 2003, the day after Wilson’s piece was published, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.

What happened on Air Force One has been of interest to prosecutors, who want to know whether anyone who saw the memo learned Plame’s identity and told it to journalists.

Telephone logs from the presidential aircraft have been subpoenaed. Among those on the flight was then-Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who has testified before the grand jury.

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Fleischer declined to comment for this article, referring all questions to prosecutors. But in a Sept. 29, 2003, e-mail to The Times, Fleischer denied he was the source of the leak. “I have no idea who told Novak, but it was not me,” he wrote.

Investigators’ apparent focus on the memo was first reported Saturday by the New York Times. But not everyone with knowledge of the memo finds it to be significant.

One former State Department official, who because of the sensitive nature of the case asked not to be named, said that the information on Plame in the memo was sparse, but that her identity was known through other means in much of the intelligence community, suggesting that the memo might not have been the way her name spread among government officials -- and the media. As the former State Department official recalled, the memo identified Plame only as “Wilson’s wife” -- it did not give her first or last name, and it did not mention her undercover status.

“The Niger uranium issue was a huge argument within the intelligence community for over a year before the Novak column,” the former official said. “So all the ins and outs of Niger uranium were the subject of endless meetings and discussions and food fights among people in the intelligence community and all the details of it were well-known.”

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Once Wilson’s July 6, 2003, article appeared, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage arranged for a copy of the memo, which had been drafted earlier detailing the Niger matter, to be forwarded to Powell, who was on his way to Africa with Bush.

“There was never any feedback from anyone on the memo,” the former State Department official said. “The memo itself was basically repeating common knowledge in the community.”

The memo was written by the State Department’s intelligence and research bureau. It outlined the history of the Niger uranium controversy and emphasized the bureau’s view that there was no substance to reports that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger.

A State Department analyst who had attended the meeting at which the CIA decided to dispatch Wilson to Africa to check out the story kept the notes from that session, the former official said. The notes mentioned that Wilson’s wife had suggested sending Wilson.

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After getting Armitage’s request, the State Department’s then-intelligence chief, Carl Ford, ordered the original memo -- along with the analyst’s notes about that meeting -- to be sent to Powell, the former official said. Ordinarily, the memo would have been transmitted directly to Powell over the State Department’s secure communications lines. But because Powell was traveling with Bush, the memo was transmitted via the White House operations center.

Because both documents were classified, it would have been necessary for someone on the plane to sign for having received them from the White House operations center, the former official said. But once someone signed for them, the document could have been passed around freely on the plane among senior officials who had security clearances.

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Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.

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