Politics & Policy

Who Did What?

Covert questions.

The hot-blooded search for criminality in the matter of Cheney/Libby/Rove has not truly satisfied those in search of first degree venality. Very soon after the indictment of Mr. Libby, the tricoteuses glumly conceded that no conspiracy has been uncovered. It is not alleged that Mr. Cheney whispered to Mr. Libby that he should conceal the truth from the grand jury or the special prosecutor. The great blast of publicity came from the technical exposure of Mr. Libby to (in his case, at his age) a life term in jail, plus a million-odd-dollar fine. If John Jones is hauled in and word is given out that if found guilty he will be hanged and his severance pay confiscated, the public’s attention will be drawn to his crime even if it was to double park.

One commentator on television wrested his way free from the allure of prospective impeachments long enough to focus not on any contradiction in what Libby said to the grand jury and to the FBI and to the special prosecutor. Rather, to the root cause of the disturbance. This had to do with revealing that Valerie Plame Wilson was secretly in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, using a cover employer to disguise her affiliation.

The revelation of a covert affiliation can have terminal consequences, as the interrupted career of Colonel Penkovsky (1919-1963) bloodily illustrates. Most duplicities along this line are relatively innocent, but the protections given are not only psychologically important, they are marginally life-saving.

An autobiographical illustration. When in 1951 I was inducted into the CIA as a deep cover agent, the procedures for disguising my affiliation and my work were unsmilingly comprehensive. It was three months before I was formally permitted to inform my wife what the real reason was for going to Mexico City to live. If, a year later, I had been apprehended, dosed with sodium pentothal, and forced to give out the names of everyone I knew in the CIA, I could have come up with exactly one name, that of my immediate boss (E. Howard Hunt, as it happened). In the passage of time one can indulge in idle talk on spook life. In 1980 I found myself seated next to the former president of Mexico at a ski-area restaurant. What, he asked amiably, had I done when I lived in Mexico? “I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President.” He thought this amusing, and that is all that it was, under the aspect of the heavens.

We have noticed that Valerie Plame Wilson has lived in Washington since 1997. Where she was before that is not disclosed by research facilities at my disposal. But even if she was safe in Washington when the identity of her employer was given out, it does not mean that her outing was without consequence. We do not know what dealings she might have been engaging in which are now interrupted or even made impossible. We do not know whether the countries in which she worked before 1997 could accost her, if she were to visit any of them, confronting her with signed papers that gave untruthful reasons for her previous stay–that she was there only as tourist, or working for a fictitious U.S. company. In my case, it was 15 years after reentry into the secular world before my secret career in Mexico was blown, harming no one except perhaps some who might have been put off by my deception.

The great question here is Robert Novak. It was he who published, in his column, that Mrs. Joseph Wilson was a secret agent of the CIA. I am too close a friend to pursue the matter with Novak, and his loyalty is a postulate. What was going on? If there are mysteries in town, that surely is one of them, the role of Novak.

The importance of the law against revealing the true professional identity of an agent is advertised by the draconian punishment, under the federal code, for violating it. In the swirl of the Libby affair, one loses sight of the real offense, and it becomes almost inapprehensible what it is that Cheney/Libby/Rove got themselves into. But the sacredness of the law against betraying a clandestine soldier of the republic cannot be slighted.


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