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At Hearing, It's Plame's Turn To Talk

She accuses the White House of `recklessly' blowing her CIA cover.

Ready To Settle A Score

March 17, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With a phalanx of cameras awaiting her entrance, Valerie Plame stepped out of the spy-world shadows and into the spotlight.

For nearly four years, Plame had been a silent, Garbo-like figure at the center of one of Washington's most consuming scandals. Her unmasking as a covert CIA officer became a case study of the brutal politics of the Iraq war, and launched a criminal probe that led to the conviction of a top White House official.

On Friday, Plame finally offered her inside account. She testified before a congressional committee that she felt as if she had been "hit in the gut" when her once-secret identity appeared in the media, and accused the Bush administration of "recklessly" blowing her cover.

Plame answered lingering questions about her husband's role in investigating one of the administration's most alarming prewar claims about Iraq, and provided new details on the tense maneuvering between the White House and CIA in the run-up to the war.

But spectacle often trumped specifics. When Plame, 43, emerged from a doorway at the corner of the committee chambers, dozens of lenses swung in unison to catch her entrance. As she sat down to testify, there were twice as many photographers as lawmakers arrayed before her. And as she got up to leave, she swept her hands back and forth like a Hollywood actress accustomed to clearing her way through paparazzi.

At one point, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) alluded to the flashbulb atmosphere, as well as the oddity of publicly questioning a woman who spent the bulk of her career hiding her identity.

"I've never questioned a spy before," Westmoreland said.

"I've never testified under oath before," Plame shot back.

In her opening statement, Plame made it clear that she has been waiting for a chance to confront critics. At one point, she scoffed at the notion that her identity was "common knowledge on the Georgetown cocktail circuit," as some have whispered in Washington. She said she has been on secret foreign missions within the last five years, and was undercover when her name appeared in a newspaper column in July 2003.

Plame also came prepared to settle scores with the administration, which carried out a campaign to discredit her husband -- former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV -- after he surfaced as a potent critic of the case for war.

"We in the CIA always know we might be exposed by foreign enemies," Plame said. "It was a terrible irony that administration officials were the ones who destroyed my cover."

Plame acknowledged sometimes seeking publicity, saying that her appearance in a Hollywood-like photo spread in Vanity Fair in January 2004 "was more trouble than it was worth."

Wilson, who at times has seemed to relish the limelight of the scandal, did not attend Friday's hearing.

Plame was accompanied by two former CIA colleagues, who said that Wilson and the couple's children were traveling in the Western United States. Wilson and Plame recently purchased a home in Santa Fe, N.M., after selling their Washington property for a reported $1.8 million.

Wilson, 57, has published a memoir, and Plame also has written a book, titled "Fair Game," that is undergoing a CIA review to prevent disclosure of classified information.

Friday's hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, ostensibly was designed to assist lawmakers in drafting improved procedures for safeguarding classified information. But the unacknowledged purpose was to give a platform to someone who has been a mystery figure in a scandal bearing her name.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said that the panel had negotiated ground rules for the hearing with the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information, including details of Plame's background. As a result, Plame offered only a general outline of her 20-year career at the agency, saying she was working in the counter-proliferation division -- a branch devoted to tracking the global spread of illicit weapons -- when her identity was exposed.

But for the first time, she offered her version of the chronology leading up to that breach. Plame said that in early 2002, she was approached by "a young junior officer" who was "very upset" after getting a phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney's office asking about a report that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger.

Plame characterized the call as part of a broader effort by Cheney to pressure the CIA into reaching harder assessments on Iraq -- a charge that Cheney as well as senior CIA officials who were at the agency at the time have denied.

"Certainly Vice President Cheney's unprecedented number of visits to the CIA in the run-up to the war might be one example" of his efforts to pressure analysts, Plame said.

Asked whether that was a form of intimidation, she said, "Yes, it is."

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