Covert Question, Open Controversy

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Was Valerie Plame covert or not? It's hard to tell from reading The Post.

Her identity as a CIA operative has been at the center of a long-running soap opera, culminating in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney. Libby is accused of lying to the FBI and a grand jury about whether he told reporters that Plame worked for the CIA and that she helped to send her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, on a trip to Niger looking for evidence of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium ore. Wilson's New York Times op-ed piece, critical of the Bush administration's use of intelligence, set off a chain of events that led to the disclosure of Plame's job.

The whole affair has been followed obsessively by reporters, and by bloggers and readers who usually have strong views, pro or con, on the Iraq war. It's been a disaster for the media; journalists were forced to reveal anonymous sources, though most did so only after getting their sources' permission.

So last Sunday's Outlook article by Victoria Toensing, a well-known Republican lawyer, sent many liberal readers up the wall. She criticized special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the media and several players in the case. Toensing said Plame's status wasn't "covert" as defined by the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which Toensing helped write as counsel for the Senate intelligence committee. To fit the law's criteria, Plame would have had to have been on overseas duty at some point in the preceding five years.

A reader in New York wrote: "The Washington Post should do its own investigative report in order to bury once and for all the doubts existing against Valerie Plame's status in the CIA before her identity was disclosed. You have op-ed writers contradicting themselves. . . . Your own David Ignatius called Plame covert in this Feb. 2 op-ed. Now . . . you have Republican Victoria Toensing saying that Plame was not covert."

Chris Webster was among dozens who complained: "Publishing her partisan version of history and parsed interpretation of the law the weekend before jury deliberations could be considered jury tampering."

This wasn't tampering. The judge has instructed jurors to stay away from news reports. There have been hundreds of news stories, editorials and opinion pieces from many points of view in The Post. Reporters and editors here disagree about the case. And Plame's status with the CIA is not an issue in the trial; whether Libby committed perjury is.

David Ignatius trusts his CIA sources that she was a covert agent. Ignatius is not a partisan; he supported the Iraq invasion but has been highly critical of how its aftermath was handled. While the legal argument about whether Plame was technically covert is complicated, CIA officials say privately that the revelation of her identity and corporate cover may have put contacts abroad at risk, Ignatius said. The CIA referred the matter for a criminal investigation, and its public affairs office refuses to talk about it.

While Toensing is a partisan, she also filed a friend-of-the-court brief during the leak investigation with media lawyer Bruce W. Sanford on behalf of 36 news organizations, including The Post. She and Sanford, who also worked on the 1982 law, argued that journalists shouldn't have to testify because no crime was committed if Plame wasn't a covert operative. Editors should have mentioned the court filing in the Outlook piece.

Since Plame's name and CIA connection first appeared in The Post in Robert D. Novak's July 14, 2003, column (then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, we now know, was his primary source, with Bush aide Karl Rove providing confirmation), she has been mentioned in The Post 560 times, 153 times with the word "covert" and 140 with the word "undercover."

Outlook's graphic of fake police mug shots of Fitzgerald, Wilson, Armitage and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, which ran with the Toensing piece, also drew complaints of marking "a low standard of conduct in print," as one reader wrote.

Associate Editor Robert Kaiser is shepherding Outlook until a new editor comes aboard. He commissioned the Toensing piece after hearing her complaints, and the graphic was his idea. Hardly anyone at The Post has more experience than Kaiser, a former managing editor.

"After 43 years at The Post, I know that many of our readers want us to do our jobs with the solemnity of monks and the propriety of Supreme Court justices, but I've never gotten the knack of either. I think good journalism should be provocative and fun. We wouldn't have treated ordinary citizens the way we depicted those four men [in the graphic], but those four are all grownups in the public arena."

Outlook's purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom and make people think, said Kaiser; he called the piece a "huge success, not least because of the many comments to [the ombudsman] that it provoked," as well as comments on The Post's Web site. "But that's secondary to the piece's success on its own terms: It made people consider Fitzgerald's methods and his case in a fresh light," he said.

When the Libby trial is over, readers deserve a Post retrospective with a timeline, graphics and cast of characters, including Post journalists, to help put the case in perspective.

The brouhaha does not begin to compare with the scandal of the mistreatment of wounded soldiers at the "other" Walter Reed, laid bare last week by National Desk reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull. The reporting was direct and verified. It did not rely on anonymous sources and backroom agreements and favors. Their reporting was journalism at its best.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or

© 2007 The Washington Post Company