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The Nation

Plame's suit against Cheney, others dismissed

The ex-CIA operative wanted them to pay for blowing her cover.

July 20, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit seeking to hold Vice President Dick Cheney and others personally responsible for damages arising from the 2003 disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled that the civil suit by Plame and her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, was preempted by laws that protect federal workers.

He ruled that the actions of Cheney and other officials, though arguably "highly unsavory," were within the scope of their government service. Federal officials are normally granted immunity from being sued in an individual capacity as long as their actions fall within their customary duties in government.

Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said the vice president was "pleased" about the dismissal.

Lawyers for Plame and Wilson said they were disappointed but not surprised with the 41-page ruling, and said they would appeal.

The suit has paralleled a separate criminal investigation by a special prosecutor that resulted in the perjury conviction in March of former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Libby, whose prison sentence of 30 months in the criminal case was commuted by President Bush, was also named in the Plame suit. So were Karl Rove, Bush's political strategist, and Richard L. Armitage, former deputy secretary of State.

Rove and Armitage have acknowledged that they gave information about Plame to columnist Robert Novak for a column Novak wrote that appeared on July 14, 2003, in which Plame's identity was publicly revealed. Libby's federal trial showed that Libby also spoke with reporters about Plame and that Cheney was his source for that information.

In their lawsuit, Plame and Wilson claimed that the four men violated their constitutional rights, including their rights to privacy and equal protection under the law.

Wilson also claimed that the officials violated his free-speech rights. Plame's identity was exposed eight days after an opinion piece by Wilson appeared in the New York Times, in which he accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence in Iraq.

The trial revealed a focused campaign within Cheney's office to discredit Wilson.

"The alleged means by which defendants chose to rebut Mr. Wilson's comments and attack his credibility may have been highly unsavory," Bates wrote. "But there can be no serious dispute that the act of rebutting public criticism, such as that levied by Mr. Wilson against the Bush administration's handling of prewar foreign intelligence, by speaking with members of the press is within the scope of defendants' duties as high-level executive branch officials."

Bates, who said he was not offering an opinion on the merits of the case, said the case was also barred by other statutes that Congress had enacted to cover instances of alleged harm to CIA operatives and other federal employees.

The judge also expressed sympathy toward arguments by lawyers for Cheney and the others that allowing suits by former clandestine officers would "inevitably require judicial intrusion into matters of national security."

Lawyers for Wilson and Plame said they disagreed with Bates' reasoning. Though the judge said the plaintiffs should have sued under the federal Privacy Act, courts have interpreted that law as not covering actions by the offices of the president and vice president. The lawyers said the decision thus unfairly left private individuals without recourse against those officials.

"Our argument is, you cannot preclude a civil suit based on a statute that gives no remedy," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor and a lawyer for Plame and Wilson.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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