Donald Trump is not known for nuance, and so the timing of his pardon of former vice president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury more than a decade ago, aroused suspicions. Didn’t the president have better things to do, like meet with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to plan the attack on Syria? Was Trump really going to go where President George W. Bush himself resolved not to go, despite repeated and intense badgering by Cheney, who in the last days of the Bush presidency said to him, “I can’t believe you’re going to leave a soldier on the battlefield”?
Yet on Friday, Trump found time to pardon Libby. He had heard that Libby had been “treated unfairly.” I doubt it had much to do with Libby. Or me, a central figure in the case. Or justice. Trump’s critics might be forgiven for thinking that the pardon was more about sending an explicit message to a select audience of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen, among others, that if they are convicted of a crime against national security in service to Trump, their loyalty will be rewarded with clemency.
But what gets lost in this assessment is why Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the first place, and why it matters today. In 2003, my husband, Joe Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Bush White House’s central premise for the invasion of Iraq: Saddam Hussein represented an imminent nuclear threat. Joe wrote that the intelligence had been distorted and “cherry-picked” in an attempt to sell the war to the American people. Shortly afterward, senior White House officials betrayed my identity to various media sources. I was at the time a covert CIA ops officer. Joe and I were subjected to years of character assassination. Scooter Libby was the only administration aide indicted in connection with the leak of my identity, but the special prosecutor on the case, Patrick Fitzgerald, said at the conclusion of the trial that there was “a cloud over the office of the vice president.”
“Outing” a covert operative imperils many. It risks not only the officer’s safety — there are many who want a CIA officer dead — but the entire network of foreign assets being run by the officer. In some cases, the assets’ lives and even those of their families may be jeopardized. The danger is real. For example, I handled an asset who was a prominent nuclear scientist in a rogue country. He provided the CIA with invaluable intelligence on how his regime went about procuring nuclear-weapons components. If his government had known he was meeting with me in third countries and passing critical information, he would have been killed. No question. I don’t know the fate of all my assets, but I do know that anyone who thought that my CIA identity was “well known around Washington” (as the columnist Robert Novak wrote in The Washington Post in 2003) and that I did not have covert operational responsibilities in the lead-up to the Iraq War is dead wrong.
Unintended consequences can extend for years: For example, imagine a Russian hacker has critical intelligence about his government’s efforts to undermine the 2016 U.S. elections. The hacker, however, also knows the story of my outing and decides not to cooperate with the CIA at any cost. He elects to take his precious intelligence to a service that can keep its secrets — like Mossad.
In the leak of my name, so much political chaff has been thrown up by partisans of the convicted Libby that the understanding and appreciation for why some things must remain secret has been lost.
In a curious twist, the problematic law under which Fitzgerald carried out his investigation, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, was written by Victoria Toensing. (Yes, the same Toensing who, with her husband, Joseph diGenova, was recently poised to join Trump’s legal team representing him in Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with Trump campaign associates — and the lawyer who represents Libby.)
The act was written primarily in response to several incidents in the 1970s in which covert CIA officer identities were revealed and, in one instance, possibly contributed to the identification and assassination of the CIA Athens chief of station in 1976. The act is due for some review. No one was indicted for violating that law in my case, but what I know for sure is that nobody can truly assess the damage continuing in the field as a result of the outing of my covert identity.
The pardon power of the president cannot be challenged constitutionally; it should be wielded with enormous diligence and prudence. In granting his pardon to Scooter Libby, Donald Trump seems to have avoided the careful process of review within the Justice Department that has been established to consider pardons.
Our national security is at serious risk when there is daylight and distrust between the president and the CIA. When President-elect Trump compared the intelligence community to Nazi Germany, he cast doubt over the future of his relationship with its hard-working and patriotic members. His chaotic presidency has exposed deep erosion in our democracy; the shoreline has vanished much faster than most of us ever imagined. In all the noise, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate issues that matter from those that are ephemeral. The pardon of Scooter Libby, the most senior aide to the vice president, who received a fair trial before an exacting trial judge and jury and was found guilty of the crimes of which he was accused, matters deeply.