by Ray McGovern
October 4, 2003
Even though I'm a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."
—George H. W. Bush, 1999
What could have been going through the heads of senior White House officials when they decided to expose a CIA officer working under deep cover? Why would they want to blow the cover of Valerie Plame, wife of former United States Ambassador Joseph Wilson?
What will the FBI find out? It is not altogether reassuring to learn that John Dion is heading the investigation. Dion is widely known in intelligence circles as one who does not feel he can go to the bathroom without first asking the Justice Department for permission. Sadly, we can expect the kind of "full and thorough investigation" that Richard Nixon ordered then-Attorney General John Mitchell to conduct into Watergate.
The important thing is not who-done-it, but why. What ulterior motive moved White House officials to "out" Ms. Plame when they knew full well it would burn her entire network of agents reporting on weapons of mass destruction, put those agents in serious jeopardy and destroy her ability at the peak of her career to address this top-priority issue?
Was it another preemptive attack, which — like the attack on Iraq — seemed to the White House a good idea at the time? It certainly fits that pattern, inasmuch as little thought seems to have been given to the implications, consequences and post-attack planning.
The objective was to create strong disincentive for those who might be tempted to follow the courageous example set by Joseph Wilson in citing the president's own words to show that our country went to war on a lie.
Administration spin doctors, having been able to dig up nothing worse, are calling Ambassador Wilson a "Clinton holdover," but no one was better qualified to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger for Baghdad's putative nuclear weapons program. Wilson served with high distinction as President George H. W. Bush's acting ambassador in Iraq during the first Gulf war and also served many years in Africa, including Niger.
After being sent to Niger in early 2002 at the behest of the Vice President Dick Cheney's office, he reported back that the story was false on its face — a finding reinforced when it was later learned that the report was based on forged documents.
When, despite all this, President Bush used this canard in his state-of-the-union address on January 28, 2003, Wilson faced a choice not unfamiliar to just-retired government officials. He could sit comfortably and smirk over brandy with friends in Georgetown parlors, or he could speak truth to power.
Conscience won. In a New York Times article on July 6, Wilson blew the whistle on the Iraq-Niger hoax, adding that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The consummate diplomat, Ambassador Wilson chooses his words carefully. He was fed up, though, with the specious reasons adduced to justify the unprovoked U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq — the same reasons that prompted three courageous colleagues to leave their careers in the foreign service in protest.
With the Times article, Wilson threw down the gauntlet. At the same time, he permitted himself the comment to Washington Post reporters that the Iraq-Niger hoax "begs the question as to what else they are lying about."
That went too far for the White House, which took barely a week to react, using trusted columnist Robert Novak to retaliate. There was little they could do to Ambassador Wilson, but they were hell-bent on preventing others from following his courageous example.
There are, after all, hundreds of people in U.S. intelligence and foreign service circles who know about the lies. Worse still from the White House's point of view, some are about to retire and escape the constraints that come of being on the inside. And, more often than not, the chicanery that took place can be exposed without divulging classified information.
And so, White House Mafiosi decided to retaliate against the Wilsons in order to issue a clear warning that those who might be thinking of following the ambassador's example should think twice — that they can expect to pay a high price for turning state's evidence, so to speak. At least one reporter was explicitly told that wives are "fair game."
So far the intimidation has worked. But a test case is waiting in the wings.
Alan Foley, the CIA official in charge of analysis on weapons of mass destruction, has announced his retirement. His name hit the news recently when it was learned that Foley tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent the bogus report on Iraq-Niger from finding its way into the president's state-of-the-union speech. Foley's credibility was immediately attacked by the White House — which may come to regret having done so.
I have worked with Alan Foley. He is cut of the same cloth as Ambassador Wilson. I am betting that the White House's latest preemptive strike will not deter Foley and other intelligence officials able to put conscience and integrity before career from following Wilson's example.
Things are likely to get even more interesting.
Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years, is now on the steering group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. Before retiring, he led one of two CIA teams conducting the most-secret daily intelligence briefings at the White House. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org