News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Senate Panel to Examine Use of Cover by U.S. Spies - New York Times

The Senate Intelligence Committee will conduct hearings on American spy agencies' use of cover to protect the identities of intelligence officers, the committee chairman said on Sunday.

The chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said on the CNN program "Late Edition" that the committee was "going to go into quite a series of hearings in regard to cover." The practice of intelligence cover has come under scrutiny during the investigation of the disclosure of the C.I.A. employment of Valerie Wilson, who had worked under cover for the agency for 18 years before being publicly identified as a C.I.A. operative in 2003.

"You cannot be in the business of outing somebody" working under cover, Mr. Roberts said. He said, however, that there were questions about the depth of Ms. Wilson's cover, because after spending many years overseas, she had been based at the Virginia headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency at least since 1997.

"I must say from a common-sense standpoint, driving back and forth to work to the C.I.A. headquarters, I don't know if that really qualifies as being, you know, covert," Mr. Roberts said. "But generically speaking, it is a very serious matter."

Ms. Wilson's C.I.A. job was first revealed in a column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003, eight days after her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly accused the White House of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq and justify war. Mr. Novak used Ms. Wilson's maiden name, Valerie Plame, and attributed his information to "two senior administration officials." A special prosecutor is investigating whether anyone illegally leaked Ms. Wilson's status or lied to cover up the leak.

Two top White House officials - Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff - spoke to reporters about the Wilsons in the week before the publication of Mr. Novak's column. Both men have denied being the original source of the leak.

Some Republicans have minimized the significance of the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity, noting not only her working at C.I.A. headquarters but also the fact that she did not have an in-depth cover story: her purported employer, a shell company created by the agency, was little more than a Boston post office box. They have also questioned whether the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act applied to her, because the law applies only to officers who have served overseas under cover in the previous five years.

But agency officials apparently believe that the law does apply to Ms. Wilson, possibly because she took overseas business trips during the five years before 2003. The C.I.A. sought an investigation, and the Justice Department and Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, concurred in choosing to pursue the case.

A number of Ms. Wilson's former colleagues at the agency have spoken out in recent days, saying the exposure of her cover was a serious offense.

In a letter to Congressional leaders last week, 11 former intelligence officers said that even if the law was technically not violated, "we believe it is appropriate for the president to move proactively to dismiss from office or administratively punish any official who participated in any way in revealing Valerie Plame's status." The letter added, "Such an act by the president would send an unambiguous message that leaks of this nature will not be tolerated."

Larry C. Johnson, a former C.I.A. analyst who trained with Ms. Wilson and who organized the letter, said in an interview that "there are lives on the line" in the leak of a covert operative's true identity, because foreigners known to have met with the operative may come under suspicion as possible American agents.

Mr. Johnson recalled that when they entered C.I.A. training together in 1985, he knew Ms. Plame only as "Valerie P." and she knew him as "Larry J.," and he had no idea that the Valerie in the news was his classmate until another former colleague called him in September 2003 and said, "That's our Val."

Mr. Wilson said in a recent interview that before the leak many friends and relatives had no idea that his wife worked for the agency.

But another former C.I.A. officer, Reuel Marc Gerecht, called Ms. Wilson's cover "very, very soft" and said cover "is the Achilles' heel of the agency." He said both "official cover," in which C.I.A. officers pose as diplomats, and "nonofficial cover," like that used by Ms. Wilson, in which officers use nongovernmental identities, are too often easily penetrated by foreign intelligence agencies.

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency has come under pressure to find ways to penetrate Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, in part by relying less on diplomatic cover and more on innovative use of nonofficial cover.


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