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Three Years of the Condor

Whose side is the CIA on, anyway?

11:00 PM, Nov 7, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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WATERGATE spawned its own subgenre of suspense films featuring various arms of the United States government as the hidden masterminds of evil schemes. The first of these post-Watergate films was 1975's Three Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford as a CIA researcher (Joe Turner, codename "Condor") caught up in a dangerous plot. Turner works in a Manhattan CIA-front operation scanning books, newspapers, and magazines for the traces of agency operations. One day he sneaks out to lunch and returns to the office, only to find his colleagues have been assassinated.

Turner realizes he is in danger, phones his Agency contact, follows his directions and soon discovers that this contact is part of the plot. Turner kidnaps and hides out with his victim/love interest (Faye Dunaway) while working to unravel the plot in which he's been ensnared. He tracks down the assassin who murdered his CIA coworkers and deduces that a rogue element within the agency is undertaking covert operations. This rogue element had hired an assassin to terminate the research office with extreme prejudice because Turner had stumbled onto this rogue group's plot to invade a Middle Eastern country for oil. The crux of the plot dawns on Turner as a revelation: "Oil fields. Oil. That's it, isn't it? This whole damn thing was about oil! Wasn't it? Wasn't it?"

The Joseph Wilson affair appears to enact a postmodern variation of Three Days of the Condor, with Joe Wilson a decadent version of Robert Redford's Turner. Valerie Plame holds up the Faye Dunaway role nicely. In this variation of the plot, however, Wilson is a co-conspirator, rather than an innocent victim, of the rogue element within the CIA.

THE SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE REPORT on pre-war intelligence devotes 45 pages to intelligence on Saddam Hussein's possible efforts to acquire uranium yellowcake from Niger; of these, roughly 8 pages are devoted to events relating to Wilson's trip to Niger in February 2002. The report rebuts the claims Wilson peddled--first on background to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and others, in May and June of 2003, and then publicly under his own name, beginning with his Times op-ed column in July 2003.

According to Wilson, the oral report he made to the CIA discredited the evidence of any Iraq-Niger yellowcake deal and showed related documents might have been forged. Wilson to the contrary notwithstanding, the Senate Intelligence Committee report concluded that, "For most analysts, the information in the report [of Wilson's trip to Niger] lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports on the uranium deal"--although the State Department disagreed.

In any event, Vice President Cheney had not been advised of Wilson's findings. As for the forged documents, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, the intelligence community didn't acquire them until October 2002, long after Wilson's oral accounting on his trip. According to the "additional views" section of the Senate report (written by Senator Pat Roberts), Wilson had baldly fabricated his alleged disclosure of the forged documents:

On at least two occasions [Wilson] admitted that he had no direct knowledge to support some of his claims and that he was drawing on unrelated past experiences or no information. For example, when asked how he knew that the Intelligence Community had rejected the possibility of a Niger-Iraq uranium deal, as he wrote in his book, he told Committee staff that his assertion may have involved "a little literary flair."

In a WEEKLY STANDARD article "A Little Literary Flair," Matthew Continetti made another interesting observation:

What's puzzling is that at times intelligence officials, quoted on background, also supported Wilson's claims. In a July 9, 2003, Newsday story by Timothy M. Phelps, for example, a "senior intelligence official" agreed with Wilson that his report "was widely disseminated" throughout the Bush administration. This wasn't the case.

Last week in a column for the Wall Street Journal, Victoria Toensing questioned whether the CIA's conduct in the Wilson matter was a brilliant covert action against the White House or inept intelligence tradecraft. She asked why Wilson hadn't been required to sign the agency's standard confidentiality agreement regarding his trip and noted that

Although Mr. Wilson did not have to write even one word for the agency that sent him on the mission at taxpayer's expense, over a year later he was permitted to tell all about this sensitive assignment in the New York Times. For the rest of us, writing about such an assignment would mean we'd have to bring our proposed op-ed before the CIA's Prepublication Review Board and spend countless hours arguing over every word to be published. Congressional oversight committees should want to know who at the CIA permitted the publication of the article, which, it has been reported, did not jibe with the thrust of Mr. Wilson's oral briefing. For starters, if the piece had been properly vetted at the CIA, someone should have known that the agency never briefed the vice president on the trip, as claimed by Mr. Wilson in his op-ed.

LAST WEEK I contacted the CIA public information officer who fields media questions regarding Wilson. I first asked him why the Agency hadn't asked Wilson to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding his trip. He hesitated for a few seconds, then responded: "I don't know." At his suggestion, I followed up with a set of questions by e-mail:

(1) Why wasn't Wilson's February 2002 trip to Niger made subject to a confidentiality agreement?

(2) Did the Agency contemplate that Wilson would publicly discuss the trip at will upon his return?

(3) Did the agency anticipate that if he did so, it would attract attention to the employment of his wife by the agency?

(4) Why did the Agency select Wilson for the mission to Niger to check out such an important and sensitive matter given his lack of experience in intelligence or investigation?

(5) Was the Agency aware when it selected him for the mission of his hostility to the Bush administration?

The CIA responded:

Given the ongoing legal process, I don't have anything for you in response to your questions about Ambassador Wilson.

JOE WILSON was not, of course, the only CIA-related political opponent of the Bush administration who emerged during the run-up to the 2004 election. In July 2004, CIA analyst Michael Scheuer published his strange book Imperial Hubris (by "Anonymous"), which attacked American foreign policy related to the war on terrorism. (Scheuer was identified as the "Anonymous" author of the book by the Boston Phoenixeven before the book's official publication date.)

In the epilogue to the paperback edition, Scheuer stated that he "was never told why the CIA permitted publication." Following publication of the book, the CIA permitted Scheuer "anonymously" to criticize the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror in media interviews until his criticisms extended beyond the administration to the intelligence community. (Scheuer left the Agency last November--the week after the election.) Last week I also asked the CIA the following questions regarding Scheuer:

(1) Has the Agency ever before in its history authorized the publication of a book by a current Agency employee attacking the incumbent administration?

(2) Was Scheuer's employment status classified at any time between 1999 and the time he resigned from the Agency? If so, over what period?

(3) Can you cite any previous instances in the history of the Agency of currently employed Agency analysts attacking the incumbent administration?

The CIA responded:

[A]ll CIA employees have prepublication obligations. Beyond the obvious prohibition on releasing classified information, the outside writings and speeches of serving officers must not affect either their ability to do their jobs or the agency's ability to accomplish its mission. Because CIA is not a policy organization, its regulations discourage current employees from speaking or writing publicly on policy issues.

In light of that common-sense guidance, the chances are extremely remote--to put it mildly--that a presently serving officer would be allowed to write a book today injecting him or herself into a national policy debate. That is how things stand now.

Which raises raises the question: How did things stand before the election last year?

AT THE CONCLUSION of Three Days of the Condor, Turner stands face-to-face with Agency contact Higgins outside the offices of the New York Times as Higgins tries to bring Turner in. Turner refuses. Higgins admonishes Turner that he will be tracked down. But Turner isn't scared; he's already told the Times his story.

Higgins asks, "How do you know they'll print it?" Turner responds confidently, "They'll print it," and walks off, secure in the knowledge that the story will expose the plot. Wilson too told "it" to the Times, and the Times did indeed print "it." Yet in Joe Wilson's postmodern twist on Three Days of the Condor, "it" appears to be part of the plot itself.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.