Meeting Joe Wilson (Part 1 of 2)

July 31, 2004

[Part 1: His thoughts on the Sandy Berger imbroglio and the future of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury probe into his wife’s outing as an officer of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Part 2: His thoughts on the official US and UK reports into prewar Iraq intelligence and the importance of paying attention to foreign policy experts… and, assuming anyone cares, my thoughts on him]

On Thursday night, the venerable and most definitely left-leaning Harvard Book Store held a lecture/question and answer session/book signing event with Ambassador Joesph Wilson. Happily, I was able to solicit his detailed views on the questions I posed in my last post in regard to US Senate Select Committee Report on the US Intelligence Community’s Prewar Assessments on Iraq.

But first, given that this report (and its British counterpart by the commission chaired by Lord Butler) are no longer the Political Blogosphere Issue Du Jour (PBIDJ)™, let me relate Ambassador Wilson’s thoughts on what currently is the PBIDJ™—the imbroglio surrounding Clinton-era National Security Adviser Sandy Berger’s mishandling of classified documents in advance of his 9/11 Commission testimony—and what undoubtedly will be the PBIDJ™ in a few weeks’ time—the resolution of Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s grand jury investigation into the outing of Ambassador Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as an officer in the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

[Brief Digression: Berger is literally the issue du jour since yesterday The Wall Street Journal (subscription required… though one can see excerpts and more links on the blogs of Atrios, Kevin Drum, and Laura Rozen) reported that Sandy Berger has been cleared of the most serious charge against him, namely that his mishandling of documents in any way impeded the investigation of the 9/11 Commission. The WSJ article quotes Susan Cooper, spokesperson for the National Archives (which is where Berger perused and then, by his own admission, purloined some documents—accidentally, of course, he claims), as saying that the Archives have accounted for all original documents that Berger saw and that most of the documents he saw were photocopies in any case. The WSJ article also quotes David Marcus, the general counsel of the 9/11 Commission as saying that the Justice Department has assured him that the Commission saw all relevant documents the Archives ever had.]

In response to a question along the lines of “How do you think the Fitzgerald probe will turn out?” from the man in front of me in the book-signing line, Ambassador Wilson gave the following interesting analysis tying the success of the Fitzgerald probe to the accusations against Berger:

The long-running FBI investigation into whether Sandy Berger had criminally mishandled classified documents was publicized in order to send the message that if the Fitzgerald grand jury indicts White House officials for blowing my wife’s cover, then there will be retaliation by levelling criminal charges against Berger.

[NB: Not an exact quote of Wilson’s response, but rather a close paraphrase.]

This was an angle I never heard before, and I think it’s worth elaborating. So here’s my long, annotated summary of all the remarks Wilson made on the Fitzgerald inquiry in the course of his lecture, official Q&A, and answering of questions during signing books. It has ample juicy stuff for the avid Plamegate aficionados, including some stuff that I, at least, hadn’t heard before (and I’m pretty sure I fit in the category of avid Plamegate aficionado). But for the non-aficionado, you are forewarned that the following may seem overly detailed…


First of all, Ambassador Wilson has every confidence in the dedication and prosecutorial skills of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

However, Wilson concedes a point many of the Administration’s defenders make: it will be extremely hard to convict anyone of violating the most serious (and most often discussed) of the applicable laws, namely the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 (United States Code, Title 50, Sections 421-426). Rather, Wilson thought that a prosecutor wanting a winnable case would have to settle for the weaker charge of disclosure of classified information (United States Code, Title 18, Section 798). [While technically disclosure of classified information can be a felony carrying the same maximum penalty of a fine and 10 years imprisonment as violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, it apparently can also be prosecuted as a misdemeanor charge, and this is what Wilson thought likely in both the case surrounding his wife’s outing and in the case surrounding Sandy Berger’s mishandling of documents—though note that technically in Berger’s case it’d be the statute against “unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents or material” (United States Code, Title 18, Section 1924) that would be most pertinent and which has an explicit maximum of only fine & 1 year imprisonment, rather than 10 years.]

Wilson offered two reasons for his pessimism:

1. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act explicitly says that it is a valid defense versus prosecution to claim an operative’s identity has previously been revealed. Specifically, United States Code, Title 50, Section 422a says

Sec. 422. – Defenses and exceptions

(a) Disclosure by United States of identity of covert agent

It is a defense to a prosecution under section 421 of this title that before the commission of the offense with which the defendant is charged, the United States had publicly acknowledged or revealed the intelligence relationship to the United States of the individual the disclosure of whose intelligence relationship to the United States is the basis for the prosecution.

It is clear that the Administration’s defenders intend to use this defense. As avid followers of the Plame case know, there have long been general allegations that Mrs. Plame Wilson’s CIA job was a “open secret” among the great-and-good in Washington DC. My impression is that the whole of Wilson’s comments on this notion sum to this:

a) Valerie Plame Wilson’s true occupation should not have been an “open secret”…

b) … but it may have become one, especially in the March-July 2003 period immediately preceding the Robert Novak article of July 2003 that publicly outed her…

c) … and if it did become an open secret in this period, then it probably had some unsavory help in so becoming by political staffers in the Office of the Vice President.

I write part (a) because with no small amount of obvious amusement, Ambassador Wilson claims that both Bill Clinton and Sandy Berger have told him that they never knew his wife was a CIA operative before reading Robert Novak’s article outing her. Moreover, with even more amusement, he claims that no one in his family knew, and in fact, the biggest question they had after they read Novak’s article was “Do you think Joe knew his wife was CIA?!” More substantively, Ambassador Wilson explicitly said the CIA was actively maintaining his wife’s cover (or, perhaps, covers plural) since she had worked overseas in the last 5 years.

This brings us to part (b). As this explicit “5 years” comment suggests, and as one might have guessed from the fact that the Wilsons are the proud parents of 3-year old twins, Valerie Plame Wilson was not working actively overseas in recent years and instead had transferred to a headquarters job in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. (With another twinkle in his eye, Ambassador Wilson said one thing his wife hates is when people tease her by confusing a headquarters job in the Directorate of Operations with being a mere analyst in the Directorate of Intelligence.) Indeed, Ambassador Wilson says that at the time of the Novak article she was soon going to be transfered to a not-actively-covered headquarters position.

From this, one gets the impression that certain members of the Bush Administration might have inadvertantly come across Mrs. Wilson’s true occupation, especially given their oft-noted insistence at seeing raw intelligence collection material and not just finished analyzed product. This impression seems especially plausible given that busy high-level bureaucrats demanding a closer look at the CIA’s raw intelligence probably wouldn’t start with specific agent or case officer reports, but rather with the reports from headquarters people in the Directorate of Operations that organize them in the first major step along the normal line of drafting a finished intelligence report for policymakers. (For example, if one reads the portions regarding Niger in the Report on the US Intelligence Community’s Prewar Assessments on Iraq by the Senate Select Committee—definitely an agglomeration of busy high-level bureaucrats—one sees that their chronology of any given event in the Niger story starts with summarizing one of these headquarters reports from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.)

However, Ambassador Wilson claims the story does not end there, which brings us to part (c). Wilson claims that he’s heard scuttlebutt from a “respected reporter” he trusts that political operatives in the Office of the Vice President immediately began a “work-up” on him (i.e., collecting dirt) after he appeared on CNN in mid-March 2003 to comment on the revelations that: (1) the International Atomic Energy Agency had declared the documents it was given by the US State Department that purported to be proof of a uranium deal between Iraq and Niger were in fact blatant forgeries, and (2) the official US State Department response was merely, “We fell for it.” (Wilson’s comments in March were only a vague ones along the lines that the State Department spokesperson was either “disingenuous” or “ill-informed” and that if government officials looked, they would find there were ample suspicions earlier within the government about the credibility of the Iraq-Niger deal. Wilson didn’t begin commenting—first anonymously and then famously and publicly in a New York Times op-ed—on his own role and detailed knowledge of the Niger issue until June 2003.) It would be at this point that knowledge of Valerie Plame Wilson’s true profession that may have been innocently and inadvertantly gained by national security staffers in the Office of the Vice President would have passed to political staffers who presumably then started a whispering campaign and, eventually, a full leak campaign against him.

But anyways, when all is said and done, this isn’t the main reason why Ambassador Wilson is pessimistic about the prospects of a sucessful prosecution under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Instead, his main reason is:

2. Right at its outset, the Act qualifies that disclosing a covert operative’s identity is illegal only if it is done intentionally and in the knowledge that the government is still actively maintaining a cover for operative:

Sec. 421. – Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources

(a) Disclosure of information by persons having or having had access to classified information that identifies covert agent

Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.

Wilson said he believed that anyone accused under the Act thus could successfully mount the defense that he or she knew only that Valerie Plame was employed by the CIA and not that the CIA actively maintained a cover (or covers) for her as a operative in the Clandestine Service who was active in the last 5 years.

One Response to “Meeting Joe Wilson (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Good work, William. Now that I’m in the area, perhaps we’ll run across one another someday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: