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Columnist Blows CIA Agent's Cover

By Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce
WASHINGTON BUREAU; Timothy Phelps is the Washington bureau chief.
 
July 22, 2003: (Newsday) Washington - The identity of an undercover CIA officer whose husband started the Iraq uranium intelligence controversy has been publicly revealed by a conservative Washington columnist citing "two senior administration officials."

Intelligence officials confirmed to Newsday yesterday that Valerie Plame, wife of retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson, works at the agency on weapons of mass destruction issues in an undercover capacity - at least she was undercover until last week when she was named by columnist Robert Novak.

Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife's employment, said the release to the press of her relationship to him and even her maiden name was an attempt to intimidate others like him from talking about Bush administration intelligence failures.

"It's a shot across the bow to these people, that if you talk we'll take your family and drag them through the mud as well," he said in an interview.

It was Wilson who started the controversy that has engulfed the Bush administration by writing in the New York Times two weeks ago that he had traveled to Niger last year at the request of the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium there. Though he told the CIA and the State Department there was no basis to the report, the allegation was used anyway by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union speech in January.

Wilson and a retired CIA official said yesterday that the "senior administration officials" who named Plame had, if their description of her employment was accurate, violated the law and may have endangered her career and possibly the lives of her contacts in foreign countries. Plame could not be reached for comment.

"When it gets to the point of an administration official acting to do career damage, and possibly actually endanger someone, that's mean, that's petty, it's irresponsible, and it ought to be sanctioned," said Frank Anderson, former CIA Near East Division chief.

A current intelligence official said that blowing the cover of an undercover officer could affect the officer's future assignments and put them and everyone they dealt with overseas in the past at risk.

"If what the two senior administration officials said is true," Wilson said, "they will have compromised an entire career of networks, relationships and operations." What's more, it would mean that "this White House has taken an asset out of the" weapons of mass destruction fight, "not to mention putting at risk any contacts she might have had where the services are hostile."

Deputy White House Press Secretary Claire Buchan referred questions to a National Security Council spokesman who did not return phone calls last night.

"This might be seen as a smear on me and my reputation," Wilson said, "but what it really is is an attempt to keep anybody else from coming forward" to reveal similar intelligence lapses.

Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

Wilson and others said such a disclosure would be a violation of the law by the officials, not the columnist.

Novak reported that his "two senior administration officials" told him that it was Plame who suggested sending her husband, Wilson, to Niger.

A senior intelligence official confirmed that Plame was a Directorate of Operations undercover officer who worked "alongside" the operations officers who asked her husband to travel to Niger.

But he said she did not recommend her husband to undertake the Niger assignment. "They [the officers who did ask Wilson to check the uranium story] were aware of who she was married to, which is not surprising," he said. "There are people elsewhere in government who are trying to make her look like she was the one who was cooking this up, for some reason," he said. "I can't figure out what it could be."

"We paid his [Wilson's] air fare. But to go to Niger is not exactly a benefit. Most people you'd have to pay big bucks to go there," the senior intelligence official said. Wilson said he was reimbursed only for expenses.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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