By Richard Leiby and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 16, 2007
She has been silent nearly four years. Today, the CIA officer whose unmasking fueled a political uproar and criminal probe that reached into the White House is poised to finally tell her own story -- before Congress.
Valerie Plame's testimony will have all the trappings of a "Garbo speaks" moment on Capitol Hill, with cameras and microphones arrayed to capture the voice of Plame, the glamorous but mute star of a compelling political intrigue. But while she hopes to clear up her status as an agency operative when her name first hit newspapers in July 2003, America's most publicized spy is unlikely to betray any details in open session about her mysterious career.
The reason: Plame remains gagged by the same secrecy rules that governed her 20 years as a CIA employee working overseas and at Langley in classified positions.
People close to Plame say her primary goal in testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is to knock down persistent claims that she did not serve undercover. "She is so tired of hearing that," her mother, Diane Plame, said in an interview earlier this week.
In the years since her outing, the debate over Plame's CIA status has often devolved into hairsplitting feuds over nomenclature and legalisms, arguments awash in partisan bile. Little about her work is publicly known, leaving commentators to speculate on her cloak-and-dagger activities. She has remained opaque, this willowy blonde with the beguiling smile. Into a factual void the public has poured its imagery of the female spy, from Halle Berry and Eva Green in James Bond movies to Jennifer Garner on TV's "Alias."
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee that sought Plame's testimony, has said that today's session will give Plame a chance to talk about the impact of the disclosure, but that his real aim is to determine the White House's role in leaking her name to columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.
For Plame, 43, the repercussions have been intensely personal, including a career cut short. But until now, only proxies -- chief among them her voluble husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV -- have been able to publicly vent the anger and frustration she has expressed privately. "They ruined her whole career," her mother said, echoing a refrain of several of Plame's former CIA colleagues. "She has no job."
The well-connected couple are not without means. Over the past year Plame has completed a book, "Fair Game," which netted her a seven-figure sum, although the book remains tied up in a CIA review process and its publication date is uncertain. She and her husband have sold the movie rights for their life story to Warner Bros. Earlier this week the couple closed the $1.8 million sale of their Washington house, which they purchased in 1998 for $735,000. They have relocated to Santa Fe, N.M., buying a spacious adobe home with a mountain view and a reported $1.1 million mortgage.
Wilson, 57, a consultant and author of his own memoir, cited the couple's desire to rear their 7-year-old twins in a quiet, "normal environment" far from the toxic political swamp of Washington.
Plame's testimony today "will be very forceful and clear, and there won't be any question what classified means," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group handling Plame and Wilson's civil suit against administration officials they accuse of destroying her cover in reprisal for her husband's debunking of prewar assertions that Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Niger.
Former CIA officers, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, provided a broad outline of Plame's career. They said she spent most of her time as one of the elite spies who travel overseas under "non-official cover" and are known as NOCs within the agency. Most CIA case officers living or traveling overseas have "official cover" by working at U.S. embassies as State Department or other government agency officials -- and thus have the protection of diplomatic immunity and the chance for rescue by the U.S. government.
But NOCs, posing as businesspeople, scientists or others, rely on a carefully crafted false identity. If detected or arrested by a foreign government, they're on their own.
In the CIA's eyes, the revelation of Plame's name in any context, whether she was stationed here or abroad, gave away a national security secret that could have dangerous repercussions. When Novak's column unmasking her as a CIA operative was published on July 14, 2003, the CIA general counsel's office automatically sent a routine report to the Justice Department that there had been an unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
As part of normal procedures, the agency made a preliminary damage assessment and then sent a required follow-up report to Justice. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to open a criminal investigation but three months later recused himself because the probe led into the White House. Patrick J. Fitgerald, the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, became special counsel and began to investigate "the alleged unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee's identity."
In February 2004, after reviewing what the FBI had, Fitzgerald widened his investigation to include "any federal criminal laws related to the underlying alleged unauthorized disclosure," plus any efforts to obstruct the probe.
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Some news stories created initial confusion over Plame's status by suggesting that disclosure of her name and employment may have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. That law, passed in response to disclosure of the names of CIA officers serving overseas by former CIA employee Philip Agee, made it a crime to disclose the names of "covert agents," which the act narrowly defined as those serving overseas or who had served as such in the previous five years.
"Covert agent" is not a label actually used within the agency for its employees, according to former senior CIA officials. Plame, who joined the agency right out of Pennsylvania State University, underwent rigorous spycraft training to become an officer in the Directorate of Operations. (The term "agent" in the CIA is only applied to foreign nationals recruited to spy in support of U.S. interests.)
Regardless of the terminology, the Identities Act proved irrelevant in the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Fitzgerald prosecuted Vice President Cheney's chief of staff for perjury and obstruction of justice based on answers about the case that Libby gave to the FBI and the grand jury. Nonetheless, some of Libby's supporters have invoked "covert" as if it were central to his indictment and conviction.
It's impossible for outsiders to know precisely what Plame did as a CIA case officer, because the dates and details of her overseas postings and trips are secret.
When she met Wilson at a Washington reception in 1997, "she described herself as an energy executive living in Brussels," he later wrote in his book. Eventually, Plame revealed to Wilson -- who held a security clearance as political adviser to the European Command -- that she was a spy, Wilson wrote. He said his only question was: "Is your real name Valerie?"
In midyear, by his account, they both moved to Washington. After marrying in 1998 and bearing twins, Plame was transferred to CIA headquarters in 2002, where she worked in the Counterproliferation Division (CPD) of the Directorate of Operations.
One retired former senior CIA officer, who was aware of Plame's work overseas, described her as "very competent but not great." Another, who was familiar with her work in a Mediterranean country, said, "It doesn't matter if she was not a great spy. . . . She did her job, and it was difficult." Said a third former senior officer who had reviewed her career: "She was no Mata Hari and probably would not have gone into senior ranks, but she presented herself well."
No one would describe details of her overseas activities, which remain classified, or her last job within the CPD -- other than to say that her work included dealing with personnel as well as issues related to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iran.
Novak's initial column sparked anger inside the CIA, according to one of her superiors at the time. "She was still undercover and there was concern that political people were being very cavalier with a serious issue," this former senior clandestine officer said. "It was not just a legal, statutory thing; it was that politicians for their own purposes could throw out all aspects of cover" to punish her husband.
Plame's life "was turned upside down" after the column appeared, Wilson says in his book. "Nobody, not even me by her side, could comprehend what it must be like for somebody who has practiced discretion and lived her cover for years -- like a character in a stage play where the curtain never comes down -- to suddenly find herself a household name. She likened it, aptly, to an out-of-body experience, floating above the new reality, unable to do anything but watch helplessly while people who knew nothing about her speculated about what she really did."
But her standing inside the agency dropped sharply after she and Wilson posed in their Jaguar convertible for a photograph in Vanity Fair, published in January 2004. The photo may have added an element of intrigue to her image but turned many of her colleagues against her. "That mocked the seriousness people had for her status and helped trivialize the situation," said one former CIA official.
Plame, three officials said, flouted CIA rules by not seeking permission to be photographed.
With her cover long blown, Plame hasn't avoided the limelight in recent years, but her conversations rarely go beyond pleasantries. Her and her husband's fame give them access to top politicians (including, last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton, with whom the couple had dinner) and Hollywood types. In his book, Wilson described a dinner in Los Angeles where "Valerie found herself seated between Norman Lear and Warren Beatty. She turned to Warren and, looking around the room, remarked, 'My life is becoming more surreal every day.' And indeed it was. Here we were in the midst of some of our best-known performing artists, and the person they wanted to see was Valerie."
She will be in that role again today on Capitol Hill, when, at 10 a.m., she is scheduled to start talking.