“I was an undercover CIA operative. My assignment was preventing rogue states and terrorists from getting nuclear weapons. You name a hot spot, I lived it. [images of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea] Then Dick Cheney’s chief of staff took revenge against my husband and leaked my identity. His name: Scooter Libby. Guess who pardoned him last year? [image of President Trump]”
— Valerie Plame, voice-over in a video ad, released Sept. 9, 2019
This article has been updated with additional details and a statement from Plame.
Plame, who was at the center of a noteworthy controversy during the George W. Bush administration, is running to win the Democratic nomination for a House seat representing a strongly Democratic district in New Mexico. In this slick and compelling ad, she tells the story that made her famous while showing off some fancy driving skills.
The ad strongly suggests that Plame was an undercover operative in places such as Iran and North Korea, when that was not the case. (She was under diplomatic cover in Greece.) Plame, however, was operations chief at the Joint Task Force on Iraq of the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA’s clandestine operations directorate when her name was publicly disclosed in a column written by Robert Novak and published in The Washington Post on July 14, 2003.
But was Scooter Libby, Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s chief of staff, the source of the leak? Libby was convicted of perjury and lying to the FBI during its investigation, but he was not charged with leaking Plame’s name.
During his State of the Union address in 2003, President Bush said 16 fateful words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
That later turned out to be very wrong.
On May 6, 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote: “I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.”
That ambassador was Joseph Wilson, Plame’s husband. Wilson was a source for Kristof and also Post reporter Walter Pincus, who wrote in more detail about Wilson’s trip on June 12, 2003, without identifying him. It later turned out that Wilson had misled reporters about having made conclusions about the forged documents in making his report to the CIA.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson publicly identified himself in an opinion article for the New York Times: “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.”
Behind the scenes, Cheney’s office was freaking out, especially over the reference in Kristof’s column that suggested that Cheney’s office had ordered the trip. (The results of Wilson’s trip had not been transmitted to the vice president’s office.) When Pincus came calling with questions, the office got especially antsy. On May 29, 2003, according to Libby’s indictment, Libby contacted Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and asked for more information on the trip.
By June 12, Grossman said he had told Libby that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA and was involved in planning the trip. This was placed in a memo that was later repackaged for Secretary of State Colin Powell.
During the trial testimony, the sequence of events leading up to the memo became less clear than in the indictment. Grossman acknowledged that in on June 9 he had heard from Wilson that he might write an article after then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared to dismiss the importance of the trip in television interviews. (“He was really mad,” Grossman testified. “People were not taking him seriously.") Another witness said he had no memory of Grossman saying the information had been requested by Libby and would have remembered if Grossman had mentioned it.
Meanwhile, Cheney told Libby that Plame worked in counterproliferation at the CIA.
The State Department memo, marked secret, was later declassified and contained this line: “In a February 19, 2002, meeting convened by Valerie Wilson, a CIA WMD manager, and the wife of Joe Wilson, he previewed his plans and rationale for going to Niger.” The paragraph mentioning Plame and her job is marked “S/NF,” meaning it was classified and could not be revealed to foreign nationals, but it’s unclear if this designation specifically referred to Plame’s role.
(Wilson, in her memoir “Fair Game,” says a colleague suggested having her husband check out the information and that she simply conveyed the request and introduced him to her colleagues.)
The State Department memo circulated among top officials in the department. After Pincus’s article appeared, Post reporter Bob Woodward interviewed Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who told him Wilson’s wife sent him to Niger and works on WMD at the CIA. But Woodward didn’t write about it.
The indictment says that on June 23, Libby told New York Times reporter Judith Miller that he believed Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. That narrative was later thrown in doubt when Miller later recanted her testimony at the trial, which was damaging to Libby’s case, as she was the only reporter who had claimed Libby volunteered information about Plame. (Miller’s retraction led to Libby getting his law license back well before he was pardoned by Trump.)
On July 7, Libby had lunch with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who was leaving the administration, and told him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, indicating the subject was not widely known but not suggesting it was classified, Fleischer testified at the trial. That same day, Fleischer acknowledged to reporters that the 16 words in Bush’s speech were “incorrect.”
So Libby was talking about Wilson and Plame’s possible role in his trip, at least within the administration. But the leak that tipped the soup came from elsewhere.
On July 8, Armitage told columnist Robert Novak that Wilson’s wife worked for CIA on weapons of mass destruction and suggested her husband for the mission. “I’m afraid I may be the guy who caused this whole thing,” Armitage later told a colleague. “I may have been the leaker. I talked to Novak.”
Novak confirmed the tip with senior White House aide Karl Rove on July 9. “I’ve heard that,” Rove replies. (Rove’s source was apparently Libby.) Novak then rounded out his reporting with a conversation with a CIA spokesman, Bill Harlow. Novak testified at the trial that Libby never discussed Plame with him in their conversations.
On July 14, Novak’s column was published in The Post and includes this passage:
Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.
Novak’s column caused a stir, especially after David Corn in the Nation labeled it a “White House Smear” and Newsday published an article on July 22 titled “Columnist Blows CIA Agent’s Cover,” saying administration officials violated the law by disclosing her name. (The links, unfortunately, are dead.)
Rove also told Matthew Cooper of Time magazine on July 11 that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA on WMD and authorized Wilson’s trip; Libby said in a conversation with Cooper on July 12 that he had heard reporters were saying Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, which Cooper took as confirmation, but Libby said he added he didn’t know if it’s even true. (Cooper’s notes were not entirely clear on this point.)
On July 11, CIA director George Tenet issued a statement taking responsibility for the 16 words while also addressing Wilson’s trip, saying “CIA’s counter-proliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn.” He said Wilson’s report interpreted a meeting to discuss “expanding commercial relations” between Iraq and Niger as an “overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales.” He added: “There was no mention in the report of forged documents -- or any suggestion of the existence of documents at all.”
Meanwhile, Fleischer testified that he read the State Department memo while traveling on a flight with Bush to Africa. The memo had been faxed to Powell on Air Force One.
When Fleischer got off the plane, he then disclosed Plame’s employment to NBC’s David Gregory and other reporters, including Pincus (who did not publish anything). Fleischer said at the trial no one directed him to spread the word about Plame. “I made the judgment on my own to say that to the press,” he said. (Pincus testified that Fleischer told him about Plame, but Fleischer said he did not recall doing so.)
Time, on July 17, published an article — titled “A War on Wilson?” — that mentioned that Plame is a CIA official, crediting Novak for being first with the information. One of the reporters on the story, John Dickerson (who was on the trip to Africa), later recalled: “What struck me was how hard both officials [I spoke to] were working to knock down Wilson.”
Libby was charged and convicted of misleading investigators about his conversations with reporters, in particular a claim that he received information about Plame from NBC’s Tim Russert. But the only article that directly can be traced to Libby is the item in Time magazine — in which one could argue he only tangentially confirmed information already obtained by the reporter — and the jury acquitted Libby on the charge of lying about what he told Cooper. No evidence emerged at trial that Libby had seen the State Department memo or that he knew Plame had a covert status.
“From his trial, it was clear that Libby gave Valerie’s name to New York Times reporter Judith Miller,” said Plame spokesman Daniel Garcia. “Please recall that Scooter Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice because he attempted to hide information from the prosecutors. He obstructed justice, perjured himself and was held accountable until Donald Trump pardoned him. No one suggested he leaked it.”
(Note: Some readers have pointed out that the 2004 Butler report on British intelligence concluded that its review of intelligence found Bush’s claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger was “well-founded.” But a 2002 State Department memo emerged in 2006 that concluded Niger was “probably not planning to sell uranium to Iraq.” Given that the Bush administration said the sentence was “incorrect,” we will stick with saying it was wrong.)
Update, Sept. 17: After this fact check was published, Plame requested that she provide an additional comment, which is appended below.
The Pinocchio Test
Plame’s name and CIA role was first disclosed in Robert Novak’s column. Novak’s original source was Armitage, and his confirming sources were Rove and a CIA spokesman. Novak’s column led to the firestorm that launched a federal investigation. But no evidence shows that Libby disclosed Plame’s role to Novak.
Administration officials were certainly eager to try to discredit Wilson, who had emerged as a damaging critic about the failed search to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. One can possibly draw a fuzzy line from Libby’s inquiries about Wilson’s role, the State Department memo and Libby’s conversations with administration officials to the eventual leak of Plame’s name. The possible seeding of the leak is what keeps this statement from being a Four-Pinocchio claim.
Plame earns Three Pinocchios.
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Statement from Valerie Plame
On September 10, Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler published an article on the recently released Valerie Plame campaign video, taking exception to the line “Then Dick Cheney’s chief of staff took revenge against my husband and leaked my identity.” Kessler gave this a “3 Pinocchios” - and declared that Scooter Libby did not leak Ms. Plame’s covert CIA identity.
The Plame campaign takes issue with Kessler’s conclusion.
There is no question that Scooter Libby was part of a group of Bush White House senior advisers who sought revenge for Ambassador Joe Wilson’s 2003 New York Times Op-Ed asserting that the intelligence used to invade Iraq was “cherry picked” and an imminent Iraqi nuclear threat was, in fact, false. The White House conspirators retaliated against Ambassador Wilson by compromising the CIA covert status of his wife, Valerie Plame – putting her and others at great risk. They pushed Ms. Plame’s name and their false narrative to at least half a dozen Washington, DC reporters. The one who took the bait and published her name in his syndicated column was Robert Novak.
There is ample evidence that Libby did indeed give Ms. Plame’s name to several reporters. Whether or not the reporters printed Plame’s name does not negate Libby’s involvement in revealing her identity. As evidenced at both the first and second Grand Jury testimonies in 2005 by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Libby did in fact leak Valerie’s identity to Miller as part of a retaliatory conspiracy. Years later in her 2015 book, Judith Miller recanted her testimony - under no danger of committing perjury. It is notable that while under oath, she testified that Libby did reveal Plame’s identity to her.
In March 2007, Libby was convicted by a jury of his peers of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements. In April 2018, President Trump pardoned Libby - which not even President George W. Bush was willing to do. The Plame campaign will not allow those in Washington to rewrite or whitewash history.