July 14, 2005 | National Review Online

Who Exposed Secret Agent Plame?

How about the least likely suspect?

This just in: Bob Novak did not reveal that Valerie Plame was an undercover agent for the CIA.

Read–or reread–his column from July 14, 2003. All Novak reports is that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson is “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.”

Novak has said repeatedly that he was not told, and that he did not know, that Plame was–or had ever been–a NOC, an agent with Non-Official Cover. He has emphatically said that had he understood that she was any sort of secret agent, he would never have named her.

As for Novak’s use of the word “operative,” he might as easily have called her an “official,” an “analyst, or an “employee.” But, as a longtime newsman, he instinctively chose the sexiest term (one he routinely applies to political figures, too, i.e. “a party operative”).

Reread Novak’s article, and you’ll also see that Novak in no way denigrates Wilson. On the contrary, he talks of Wilson’s “heroism” in Iraq in 1991. And nowhere in his column does he say–or even imply–that Wilson was unqualified to conduct the Niger investigation or that Plame was responsible for getting him the assignment–merely that she “suggested sending him.”

Even so, it is unclear whether Novak’s sources may have committed a crime by talking to Novak about Plame. That would depend on a number of variables involving what they knew about Plame and how they came to know it. A prosecutor would have the power to compel Novak to testify regarding what was said to him and by whom.

Is this splitting hairs? Not at all. In Washington, plenty of people are acquainted with CIA operatives who are not working undercover. For example, when a CIA analyst wrote a book under the pseudonym “Anonymous,” it was widely known that Anonymous was the Agency’s Michael Scheuer. Before long, someone revealed that in print. No crime was committed or alleged–no classified information had been disclosed, no NOC had been exposed.

So if Novak did not reveal that Valerie Plame was a secret agent, who did? The evidence strongly suggests it was none other than Joe Wilson himself. Let me walk you through the steps that lead to this conclusion.

The first reference to Plame being a secret agent appears in The Nation, in an article by David Corn published July 16, 2003, just two days after Novak’s column appeared. It carried this lead: “Did Bush officials blow the cover of a U.S. intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security–and break the law–in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?”

Since Novak did not report that Plame was “working covertly” how did Corn know that’s what she had been doing?

Corn does not tell his readers and he has responded to a query from me only by pointing out that he was asking a question, not making a “statement of fact.” But in the article, he asserts that Novak “outed” Plame “as an undercover CIA officer.” Again, Novak did not do that. Rather, it is Corn who is, apparently for the first time, “outing” Plame’s “undercover” status.

Corn follows that assertion with a quote from Wilson saying, “I will not answer questions about my wife.” Any reporter worth his salt would immediately wonder: Did Wilson indeed answer Corn’s questions about his wife–after Corn agreed not to quote his answers but to use them only on background? Read the rest of Corn’s piece and it’s difficult to believe anything else. Corn names no other sources for the information he provides–and he provides much more information than Novak revealed.

Corn also claims that Wilson “will not confirm nor deny that his wife …works for the CIA.” Corn adds: “But let’s assume she does. That would seem to mean that the Bush administration has screwed one of its own top-secret operatives in order to punish Wilson …”

On what basis could Corn “assume” that Plame was not only working covertly but was actually a “top-secret” operative? And where did Corn get the idea that Plame had been “outed” in order to punish Wilson? That is not suggested by anything in the Novak column which, as I noted, is sympathetic to Wilson and Plame.

The likely answer: The allegation that someone in the administration leaked to Novak as a way to punish Wilson was made by Wilson–to Corn. But Corn, rather than quote Wilson, puts the idea forward as his own.

Keep in mind that from early on there were two possible but contradictory scenarios:

1) Members of the Bush administration intentionally exposed a covert CIA agent as a way to take revenge against her husband who had written a critical op-ed.

2) Members of the Bush administration were attempting to set the record straight by telling reporters that it was not Vice President Cheney who sent Wilson on the Africa assignment as Wilson claimed; rather Wilson's wife, a CIA employee, helped get him the assignment. (And that is indeed the conclusion of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee.)

Corn's article then goes on to provide specific details about Plame's undercover work, her “dicey and difficult mission of tracking parties trying to buy or sell weapons of mass destruction or WMD material.” But how does Corn know about that? From what source could he have learned it?

Corn concludes that Plame's career “has been destroyed by the Bush administration.” And here he does, finally, quote Wilson directly. Wilson says: “Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames.”

Corn has assured us several times that Wilson refused to answer questions about his wife, refused to confirm or deny that she worked for the CIA, refused to “acknowledge whether she is a deep-cover CIA employee.” But he is willing to say on the record that “naming her this way” was an act of treachery? That's not talking about his wife? That's not providing confirmation? There is only one way to interpret this: Wilson did indeed talk about his wife, her work as a secret agent, and other matters to Corn (and perhaps others?) on a confidential basis.

If Wilson did tell Corn that his wife was an undercover agent, did he commit a crime? I don't claim to know. But the charge that someone committed a crime by naming Plame as a covert agent was also made by Corn, apparently for the first time, in this same article. No doubt, the independent prosecutor and the grand jury will sort it out.

Criminality aside, if Wilson revealed to Corn that Plame worked as a CIA “deep-cover” operative “tracking parties trying to buy or sell” WMDs, surely that's news.

And it is consequential: On the basis of Novak's story alone, it is highly unlikely that anyone would have had a clue that Plame — presumably under a different name and while living in a foreign country — had been a NOC. At most, her friends in Washington would have been surprised to learn that she didn't work where she said she worked.

But once Corn published the fact that Plame had been a “top-secret operative,” and once he quoted Wilson saying what exposing his wife would mean — and once Plame posed for Vanity Fair photographers — anyone who had ever known her in a different context and with a different identity would have been tipped off.

But they would not have been tipped by Novak — nor, based on what we know so far, by Karl Rove. Rather, it appears they would have been tipped off by Joe Wilson who, the publicly available evidence strongly suggests, leaked like a sieve to The Nation's David Corn.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.