The former CIA operative at the center of a three-year federal leak investigation fought back Thursday, suing Vice President Dick Cheney, his former top aide and presidential counselor Karl Rove -- accusing them of ruining her career and seeking revenge against her husband, an administration critic.
The onetime operative, Valerie Plame, and her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, alleged in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that administration officials illegally conspired to violate their constitutional rights and other laws by leaking Plame's identity to reporters.
The civil suit -- filed almost three years to the day after syndicated columnist Robert Novak publicly identified Plame -- seeks unspecified financial damages.
Wilson and Plame announced Thursday that they were setting up a fund to pay the costs of the litigation and a website for contributions. Any money obtained from the suit above and beyond their legal bills will go to charity, they said.
But they and their lawyers said they would not comment about the suit until a news conference scheduled for today. Their legal team includes Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at Duke University law school and a widely respected authority on constitutional law.
The suit marks a new front in a Washington scandal that only a month ago seemed to have run its course -- after a federal prosecutor said he had decided not to bring charges against Rove, a primary focus of the three-year probe.
In addition to Rove and Cheney, the suit names former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who faces a trial early next year on charges of perjury and obstruction in connection with his role in the case.
"The lawsuit concerns the intentional and malicious exposure by senior officials of the federal government of one such human source at the CIA, Valerie Plame Wilson, whose job it was to gather intelligence to make the nation safer, and who risked her life for her country," according to the complaint.
A spokesman for Rove, Mark Corallo, called the allegations "absolutely and utterly without merit."
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said her boss would have no comment. "It relates to a matter that is already before the courts, so we are just going to follow standard policy and not comment on a matter that is in litigation," she said.
A lawyer for Libby, William Jeffress, also declined to comment.
Though legal experts were divided over the strength of the allegations, the suit is likely to become a rallying point for administration critics -- in a similar manner, perhaps, to the focus by partisans a decade ago on Paula Jones' sexual harassment litigation against President Clinton. In this case, the charges are rooted in one of the most divisive and intensely debated issues of the Bush presidency: whether the administration twisted the intelligence it used to justify the war in Iraq.
Novak published Plame's name and employment in his syndicated column July 14, 2003 -- eight days after an op-ed article by her husband ran in the New York Times. Wilson challenged Bush's assertion in the State of the Union address that year that Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear material in Africa. In 2002, Wilson was sent on a CIA-backed mission to Niger to assess the claim; he concluded in his article that it was unfounded.
Plame had worked as a covert operative on weapons issues; in some circumstances, disclosing the identity of an undercover officer is a federal crime. Wilson and Plame say that her identity was leaked in retaliation for her husband's criticism.
Although Rove and Libby initially denied that they had anything to do with exposing Plame, an investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald showed that both men had spoken with reporters about her -- and that Cheney himself was one of the people who gave information about Plame to Libby.
Fitzgerald's probe also revealed that Cheney was acutely concerned about Wilson's criticism and was insinuating privately that his wife had arranged the Africa trip as a "junket."
There has been no evidence that Cheney urged anyone to expose Plame. But her name surfaced as administration officials were speaking with reporters about Wilson and his column.
According to the lawsuit, the leak caused widespread personal and professional damage. Plame resigned from the CIA last year, citing the fallout from the scandal. The suit alleges that the disclosure has left Wilson and Plame fearing for their family's safety because of concerns that they had become targets of people hostile to the U.S. or the intelligence community.
The suit also alleges that by retaliating against Wilson for writing the column, the officials violated the couple's 1st Amendment rights, and that by disclosing Plame's identity, they violated her right to privacy. The suit was brought in part under a theory that allows citizens to sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights.
Such suits, known as Bivens actions, are difficult to win. The law affords federal officials immunity from lawsuits when they are acting within the scope of their duties.
The law also requires that the officials know that their conduct affects the exercise of particular constitutional rights. Some legal scholars said it would be hard for Wilson to show that his right to speak out was affected by the decision of Rove and Libby to reveal the CIA affiliation of his wife.
"If you are going to be out there criticizing the government, then the government, just like anybody else, will often try to explain why you are in the wrong. That is part of the public debate," said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.
Though Plame's status as an operative was classified, even Fitzgerald did not find that the disclosure broke a federal law protecting covert agents, Volokh said, adding that "not every violation of federal criminal law is a constitutional violation."
But other experts said the ultimate success of the lawsuit, measured in dollars, might be beside the point. They said it would be difficult for the officials to get the suit quickly thrown out, giving Plame, Wilson and their legal team an opportunity to question them under oath and obtain their notes, documents and even statements and grand jury testimony given as part of the Fitzgerald probe.
That could help answer the major unanswered question in the case: the identity of a senior administration official who told Novak about Plame. Novak discussed his role in the investigation this week, but has declined to reveal his main source.
"The key point is that filing the lawsuit will permit Plame Wilson to subpoena witnesses -- such as Robert Novak -- to provide testimony," said John T. Nockleby, a professor at Loyola Law School. "As a result, we may finally learn who is the mystery person who first spoke to Novak."