EVEN BEFORE THE INDICTMENT of Lewis "Scooter" Libby last week, many in the mainstream media had already settled on a simple storyline. Valerie Plame's identity was blown, the story goes, by administration officials seeking retribution against her husband, Joseph Wilson. Wilson is often portrayed as a brave "whistleblower," who had the courage to stand up to an administration that "lied" its way into war.
There is, perhaps, no better illustration of how entrenched this misleading storyline has become than this past Sunday's episode of 60 Minutes. In a segment fronted by correspondent Ed Bradley, a host of Wilsonian memes were broadcast without even the slightest bit of skepticism.
THE SEGMENT BEGAN with a misleading question: "Would someone in the government go that far, leak her [Valerie Plame's] name to the press, in retaliation for her husband's public criticism of the war in Iraq?" But, Wilson was not merely "criticizing" the war in Iraq, a democratic right that should be protected, as this opening question implied. His "critique" was pure fantasy, a tale woven around his own classified trip to Africa.
As has been shown countless times, no substantive part of Wilson's story was true. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Report made this clear in July 2004 (see, for example, here and here.) To hear 60 Minutes tell it, you would never even know that this report existed. The Senate Intelligence Report was not mentioned and Bradley did not ask Wilson a single question about his bogus charges. Instead, for the umpteenth time, Wilson was allowed an unchallenged opportunity to tell his version of events.
By ignoring the numerous deficiencies in Wilson's account, Bradley ignored one of the more salient questions in this story: Why was a CIA officer, Wilson's wife, complicit in his lies? The Senate Intelligence Report makes it clear that Valerie Plame orchestrated Wilson's trip to Africa and attended at least part of his CIA debriefing. She was, therefore, most certainly in a position to know that her husband's accusations were false.
Why did she not stop him from spreading his falsehoods?
In fact, much of the media's coverage of the war in Iraq has been shaped by former and current CIA personalities with their own, not impartial, motives. Countless leaks and anonymous comments have shaped front-page stories over the last several years. An ever-growing bevy of former CIA officials have also gone public to state their cases against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. (See, for example, here and here.)
The 60 Minutes piece did not give the viewer any sense that perhaps the entire Wilson-Plame affair was part of a turf battle between members of the CIA and the Bush administration. Instead, in addition to Wilson, Bradley turned to two former CIA officials and a Democratic congressman for their assessments of "how serious was the damage done by the leak." The witnesses offered no real evidence of any further collateral damage done by the leak, but instead dealt with hypothetical examples.
THE FIRST OF THE FORMER CIA OPERATIVES was Jim Marcinkowski, who is now an attorney in Royal Oak, Michigan and who, 60 Minutes tells us, "was a covert CIA agent spying in Central America" in the late 1980s. Marcinkowski's attention was drawn to the faux CIA front company, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, which Plame listed as her employer when she and her husband contributed $1,000 each to the Gore campaign in 1999. "There is a possibility that there were other agents that would use that same kind of a cover," he explained, "So they may have been using Brewster-Jennings just like her."
But how difficult would it have been for a foreign intelligence service to discover that Brewster-Jennings was really a CIA front company? As it turns out, it was not very difficult at all.
The company's existence was entirely fictional and the CIA did not do a very good job making it look real either. The lone piece of data that Washington Post could find on the company in 2003 was a listing in the Dun & Bradstreet database of company names. But the Post's reporters found that the company's telephone number was not in service and when they contacted the property manager for the address listed, they found that no company with that name was located there. Robert Novak, the reporter who originally reported Plame and her firm's real identities, also quickly became "convinced" that no such firm existed.
Fooling family members and friends is one thing, fooling foreign intelligence operatives is quite another. Good front companies have at least a nominal existence and are not fictions easily revealed by reporters.
Wilson called the leaking of his wife's name and her fictional employer's true purpose "abominable." He further explained, "But when he [Robert Novak] published her name, it was very easy to unravel everything about her, her entire cover. You live your cover. And so you live Brewster-Jennings. So, she would have had business cards that said Brewster-Jennings on them. So, that was just insult to injury."
But if Wilson and his wife were so concerned about her cover, and possibly the cover of other agents, being blown, then why did he publish an editorial in the New York Times discussing a classified intelligence-gathering mission he went on? Why did he then go on to make many media appearances peddling his own fictional version of his mission? Did Wilson think that foreign intelligence services would not do a little background work on him, his family, and all of their ostensible connections? Ed Bradley was not interested in answering any of these questions.
The 60 Minutes segment further argued that the leak "gives America's enemies clues about how the CIA operates." Marcinkowski explained, "[Valerie Plame] is the wife of an ambassador, for example. Now, since this happened, every wife of an ambassador is going to be suspected. Or they'll know there's a possibility that the wife of a U.S. ambassador is a CIA agent."
But, it is doubtful that this affair revealed any new information about the CIA's tactics. This country's enemies have long known that covert operatives are seeded in the ranks of embassies and other diplomatic offices around the world. This has been the standard operating procedure for intelligence services as long as nations have practiced the art of espionage. In fact, one of the main reasons the CIA did not have better and more human intelligence assets in the Taliban's Afghanistan and Saddam's Iraq was that there was no formal diplomatic presence in those countries from which to operate.
It is a safe bet, too, that the family members of U.S. diplomats and ambassadors, especially those who write fictional accounts about their classified intelligence-gathering missions in the world's most famous newspaper, are immediately suspected as well.
For further speculation on the effects of the Plame leak, Bradley turned to Democratic Congressman Rush Holt, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee:
Bradley asked the leading question, "Is it possible that someone overseas, someone is going to jail because of this?"
Holt replied, "Sure, it's possible."
Bradley then led a little further, "Is it possible that somebody lost their life?"
Holt replied, "It's possible. I don't know."
Thus, according to 60 Minutes, not only did the outing of Valerie Plame destroy her career--an act of retribution against a man who dared to criticize the war in Iraq--it also possibly led to other agents being imprisoned or even killed. Such speculation is certainly designed to leave the viewer even more enraged over this whole affair.
None of this is meant to excuse any alleged wrong-doing on Scooter Libby's part. Nor should the outing of any CIA operative be taken lightly. But, behind the 60 Minutes version of events lies a host of unanswered questions.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.