Valerie Plame doesn't deny that blowing the cover of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan is a serious matter. It's just that, discussing the issue at a Wednesday evening forum sponsored by The Atlantic, Plame seemed to view the outing of the CIA's top spy on the front lines in the Afghan war as more of an embarrassment than an outrage.
"My understanding is … it was a military aide who compiled this list of those that were greeting the president when he came," Plame said. "Colossally stupid, but I think it was inadvertent. It was an error … really stupid. The White House apparently has said that they're going to do an investigation, and they'll find someone who's really embarrassed at the end of it."
The leak, if that's what it can be called, happened over the weekend as President Obama made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. In a routine email to the press, the administration included a name with the description "Chief of Station" after it -- a clear reference to the ranking CIA official in Kabul. It's hard to imagine a more sensitive assignment in a more dangerous place, and blowing the station chief's cover -- in an email to 6,000 reporters, no less -- will surely have repercussions.
The White House quickly explained that a mistake had been made, but did not offer any details. Top officials announced that White House counsel Neil Eggleston, a veteran of many Washington investigations, will "look into" the matter. "It shouldn't have happened," deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken told CNN on Tuesday. "We're trying to understand why it happened. In fact, the chief of staff, Denis McDonough, asked the White House counsel to look into it, to figure out what happened and to make sure it won't happen again."
Many observers seem satisfied with the White House's explanation that the incident was just a regrettable error. And that is indeed what it appears to be. But such assessments represent a remarkable change in tone from the discussion several years ago, when the George W. Bush administration leaked Valerie Plame's identity as part of a bitter fight over the origin and direction of the Iraq war. Back then, it was quite common to hear the words "traitor" and "treason" used to describe top Bush officials involved in the controversy.
There's no doubt the Bush officials deliberately revealed Plame's CIA connection, if not her name, to the press. But the Plame leak could be characterized as inadvertent in one sense: the leakers, both in the State Department and the White House, did not know that Plame's status at the CIA was classified when they mentioned her to reporters. That is why no one was ever charged with leaking her identity; they did not knowingly and deliberately reveal classified information. So in that sense it was all a mistake. Yes, it was inadvertent, colossally stupid, an embarrassment -- but it was a mistake.
No matter. Pushed relentlessly by Democrats, the White House agreed to the appointment of a special prosecutor in the CIA leak case, which led to years of investigation -- top Bush aide Karl Rove was called before a grand jury five times -- and the conviction of former top Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby on charges of perjury.
Now that a high-profile inadvertent leak is in the news again, perhaps it would be a good thing, just for memory's sake, to go through some of the things that were said during the Plame affair.
The controversy was complicated. The short version of it is that there was a dispute over a claim by President George W. Bush in the 2003 State of the Union address to the effect that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had tried to buy nuclear material in Africa. In the course of that controversy, it was revealed that the year before, 2002, the CIA had sent a former ambassador to Africa to investigate the matter. After the State of the Union address, former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, published an op-ed in the New York Times alleging that the Bush administration had "twisted" the intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Reaction inside the Bush White House could be summed up as: Who sent this guy to Africa? And why is he dumping on us in the pages of the New York Times?
The Bushies did a quick internal investigation and found that the CIA had sent Wilson on the recommendation of his wife, Valerie Plame, who was a CIA employee working at the agency's Virginia headquarters. A controversy erupted and reached white-hot level when the leftist journalist David Corn suggested that Plame was working under covert status, and that the Bush administration had outed an undercover agent.
The accusation that Rove, or Libby, or others in the Bush White House -- including the president himself -- were "traitors" or had committed "treason" got its start in late September 2003, when Democrats dug up an old quote from George H. W. Bush, who was not only a former president and George W. Bush's father, but a former CIA chief. In 1999, when the senior Bush attended a ceremony in which CIA headquarters was named for him, he said in his speech: "Even though I am a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are in my view the most insidious of traitors."
The Washington Post published the quote in a story on September 29, 2003. By that night, it was repeated on cable TV, and the accusations of treason started flying. They would continue for years.
Plame's husband, Joe Wilson, led the attack. "Scooter Libby is a traitor," Wilson said on CNN in July 2007. But others went there, too — even high-ranking government officials. For example, when the Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg appeared on the now-defunct liberal talk radio network Air America — a hotbed of traitor talk — he was asked, "Karl Rove is guilty of treason, isn't he?" Lautenberg's answer was, "Yes, I think so."
In October 2004, Terry McAuliffe, who was at the time chairman of the Democratic National Committee, demanded that Rove reveal his testimony before the grand jury so the public could learn "who in the White House committed treason by outing a CIA operative."
No one will be surprised that Rachel Maddow, now an MSNBC host but back then on Air America, took part, too. "Is Karl Rove a traitor?" Maddow was asked on MSNBC in July, 2005. "I believe it," she said.
Al Franken, now a Democratic senator from Minnesota but then also with Air America, made the treason accusation in a characteristic non-joking joking manner. "They wanted to smear the guy who came back with the report, and so they out his wife and said she sent him there," Franken explained on "Late Night With David Letterman" in October 2005. "This is essentially -- you know, George H.W. Bush, the president's father, was the head of the CIA and he has said that outing a CIA agent is treason."
"It is treason, yes," said Letterman.
"And so basically, what it looks like is going to happen is that Libby and Karl Rove are going to be executed," Franken said. When the crowd began to laugh, Franken added, "Yeah. And I don't know how I feel about it because I'm basically against the death penalty …"
Libby was convicted of perjury in 2007. The president commuted Libby's sentence but did not pardon him. Politics moved on, and memories of the Plame affair began to fade. But not all memories. In October 2010, Plame appeared with husband Joe Wilson on CNN. Anchor Wolf Blitzer asked them to react quickly to a few names. When Blitzer said "Dick Cheney," Wilson said, "Traitor." When Blitzer said "Scooter Libby," Wilson said, "Traitor." (Wilson did not pass judgment on the original leaker, the State Department's Richard Armitage, who did not 'fess up until after the controversy was over.)
Fast-forward a few years, and there has now been another leak of a CIA employee's classified status. The circumstances are entirely different from the Plame case. But they are similar in the sense that the person doing the leaking, then and now, most likely did not know that he or she was revealing classified information. Was one an act treason and the other an embarrassing mistake?
That's what Plame suggests. The new leak, she explained at The Atlantic gathering, "is not analogous, I would argue, to what happened to me because the crucial distinction being intent, right? My view of it is that there was retaliation for my husband, Joe Wilson, who was a fierce critic, I think it's fair to say, of the Iraq war, the Bush administration. It was a warning shot —versus this, which was just foolish."
There's been no reaction, at least not yet, from the now-former chief of station in Afghanistan.