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Washington Abuzz Over a New Kind of Scandal

October 01, 2003|Doyle McManus and Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Who unmasked Valerie Plame?

The identity and the motive of the leaker who revealed the name of the clandestine CIA officer in July are both unknown -- except to a few reporters who received the leak, and they aren't talking.

But even before the evidence was in, suspicion in official Washington quickly focused on the White House staff and aides to Vice President Dick Cheney. They had been vocally unhappy with Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who this summer accused the Bush administration of "twisting" intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs.

Wilson himself has charged that Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political advisor, was behind the leak of his wife's identity. Rove has denied doing so.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official, said the circumstances of the leak suggested that it might have come from someone in Cheney's camp, although he acknowledged that he does not have direct evidence. A spokesman for Cheney declined to respond.

Still others noted that George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, were publicly critical of Wilson last summer -- although that does not implicate them in the release of Plame's name and job. Fleischer has denied being the leaker, and Tenet has asked the Justice Department to open a full-scale criminal investigation into the episode.

But the most widely discussed theory focuses on the high-stakes bureaucratic battle that raged around Bush and his top aides in July over a single 16-word sentence in the president's State of the Union address.

That battle pitted officials from Cheney's office and the White House's National Security Council, who argued that Iraq had been seeking nuclear weapons, against the CIA, which argued that some of the evidence was weak.

In the speech Jan. 28, Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

But documents supporting that statement were later declared to be forgeries, and congressional investigations in July revealed that the CIA had warned the White House that it had doubts about the accuracy of the intelligence.

The controversy led to an embarrassing round of behind-the-scenes finger-pointing between the CIA and the White House over who was responsible for putting the shaky claim about uranium into Bush's speech. Eventually, National Security Council staff took responsibility.

But that acknowledgment came only after sharp disagreements. In July, Wilson publicly revealed that in 2002, he visited West Africa at the CIA's request to investigate claims of an Iraqi uranium program -- and reported back that the evidence was weak. He accused the White House of ignoring his report and exaggerating the Iraqi threat.

Meanwhile, a senior CIA official, Alan Foley, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he, too, was skeptical of the uranium claim, and said he had urged the NSC's chief weapons proliferation expert, Robert Joseph, to leave it out of the president's speech.

Wilson's wife works with Foley in the CIA's Nonproliferation Center.

On the other side of the dispute, the NSC's Joseph is said to be an ally of Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

"Foley fought with Joseph about keeping the Niger claim out of the State of the Union," Cannistraro explained. "Cheney and Libby made sure it got in. Then you get a report from the CIA casting doubt on the authenticity" -- Ambassador Wilson's report.

"The leak was to punish Wilson, to disparage him with the suggestion of nepotism," he said. In other words, he suggested, the leaker was arguing that Wilson's report should not be taken seriously because he only got the job through his wife's intercession. (Wilson says his wife was not the person responsible for sending him to Africa.)

Plame's career path at the CIA remains unknown. She and Wilson married in the 1990s, and it is unclear whether they served abroad in the same country at the same time. Until her outing as an undercover CIA operative, she had told friends she was an energy industry consultant.

Frank Anderson, a CIA officer overseas for nearly 27 years, said he could not understand why an administration official would deliberately disclose the name of an undercover operative.

"It's outside my ethical construct," he said. "I haven't got the slightest idea what they were thinking, except it was just dirty pool."

R. James Woolsey, a former director of central intelligence, said the disclosure of the name of a CIA case agent, as intelligence officers who recruit and handle spies overseas are known, could cause considerable harm.

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