It is early autumn in Washington. The leaves are falling, another election season is limbering up, and the nation's capital is once more embroiled in a gale-force scandal. It is an extraordinary affair that combines espionage, political dirty tricks and weapons of mass destruction -- a heady mix normally found only on the back of airport thrillers.
But fact has had a knack of trumping fiction in Washington lately. In principle at least, this is worse than Watergate and far worse than former president Bill Clinton's sexual liaisons. According to the claims now under scrutiny by the FBI, senior officials in the Bush administration (possibly including aides close to the president himself) blew the cover of a high-ranking CIA agent in order to punish and discredit her husband, a critic of the administration. In doing so, they endangered the very national security in the name of which the administration has so far invaded two countries.
Ironically, the agent in question was a leading player in the monitoring and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Her outing has undoubtedly hamstrung that pursuit.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
If caught, the culprits could face jail sentences of 10 years. Even if they escape jail, the affair could seriously tarnish a president who, in the early stages of a re-election campaign, has made the restoration of "honor and dignity" to the White House his central goal. What happens in the next few days and weeks will determine the extent of the damage.
Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the row, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, is scarcely 100m from the White House, contemplating his epitaph. It was going to be "the last American diplomat to meet Saddam Hussein." Now he prefers "the husband of the CIA agent outed by her own government."
Valerie Wilson, the woman in question, is not talking about her experience. She has authorized her husband to say only "that she would rather cut off her right arm than speak to the press." But her discretion will not bring back her secrecy. Whoever leaked her name did not just jam a spoke into the work that her department was doing, Joe Wilson believes, but also exposed her family to serious danger.
He does not fear the intelligence services so much as terrorists bent on finding soft but valuable targets, or "just somebody who's a little bit paranoid and thinks somehow that the CIA is responsible for the voices he hears in his head." They are taking their own security precautions, he says, but they have had no help from the state to keep them safe.
It all started with a little-noticed newspaper article on July 14. Written by veteran conservative commentator Robert Novak, it was about Wilson and the search for former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Eight days earlier, Wilson had caused the Bush administration some embarrassment with an article of his own. The retired diplomat, who had been in Baghdad in the run-up to the first Gulf war, had argued that the administration's claims about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Africa were questionable at best, and pointed out that he was in a position to know. He had been to Niger in February last year to check the claims and found little reason to believe them.
Novak, known for his combative style and his excellent contacts in the Republican party, took a sceptical view of Wilson, and quoted "two senior administration officials" as saying that the former diplomat had only been sent to Africa because his wife, a "CIA operative" in the weapons of mass destruction department, got him the assignment. And seemingly to make it clear he knew of which he spoke, Novak published her maiden and professional name, Valerie Plame.
Novak later described the reaction to his article as a "firestorm."
"This has stayed alive for several reasons," he told media students recently. "A lot of people want to use it to bring down President Bush. There are a lot of people -- on the left and right -- who don't like me and would like to discredit me."
Novak's defense is that he was assured by his CIA contacts that Plame was a desk-driving agency bureaucrat. But it has since emerged that she is anything but. She has a job in the directorate of operations, the agency's sharp end, where she is an officer with "non-official cover:" an NOC, CIA parlance for spy.
Plame was recruited into her role 18 years ago.
"Everyone there was a pretty impressive person with different skills," says Jim Marcinkowski, a former CIA case officer who was in Plame's class, and went to the range with her where they practised firing Soviet-made AK-47s.
"But if I recall right, she had never fired a gun before, and she pretty much beat the rest of us," he says.
The NOC operates under deep cover, as a business executive, tourist, journalist or, in Plame's case, an energy consultant. If the NOC is caught, he or she has no diplomatic protection. "It was the most dangerous assignment you could take. It takes a special sort of person," says Marcinkowski, now a prosecutor in Michigan.
An NOC's identity, in the words of Kenneth Pollack, another former CIA man, is the "holiest of holies." And yet there it was, published in the morning press. Plame's fellow agents and former colleagues were infuriated. It is said that the groundswell of anger was such that CIA director George Tenet had little choice but to take the case to the Department of Justice.
"In this particular case, it was so far over the line, I think myself and a lot of us were truly outraged that the government would do this," Marcinkowski says. "I mean, we kept our mouths closed since 1985, when we joined."
The scandal slowly gathered momentum over the summer, but it was only when official Washington returned from its summer holiday and senior Democrats began to see its potential to damage the administration that the affair began to build up steam.
Then, early this month, when news leaked that the CIA had asked for a justice department enquiry, the scandal detonated. It quickly turned out that the senior administration officials who Novak had talked to had been busy that week in July, calling up half a dozen Washington journalists to give them the same tip, and potentially committing the same felony six times over.
"My judgment of it when it first happened was that it was clearly designed to intimidate others from coming forward. The word was, if you decide to do what Wilson has done, then we will drag your wife into a public square and administer a beating," Wilson says.
Wilson believes that Karl Rove, the mastermind behind Bush's election strategy since the Texas days, was behind the leaks.
A couple of the journalists who were contacted have told him they spoke to Rove directly. One of them reported that Rove had referred to Wilson's wife as "fair game." At one point over the summer, a furious Wilson said he looked forward to the day when Rove would be "frogmarched out of the White House in handcuffs." He has since withdrawn the comment and toned down his language, leading the White House, which has vehemently defended Rove, to point out the inconsistencies in his version of events.
Wilson says he still holds Rove responsible, although he can now see how Bush's trusted adviser might escape charges. His calls to "push" the story along may have come after Novak printed his article, by which time Plame's identity was no longer a secret.
"I have every confidence from what I was told that Karl Rove specifically as well as others in the White House were pushing the story," he says.
"Whether or not illegal, even by Washington's bare-knuckle political standards, it's pretty slimy," he says.
If Rove only arrived on the scene after the original leak, then questions remain over the identity of the two "senior administration officials" who made the original leak. If Wilson has suspects in mind, he is not telling. Even if they are caught, they could argue that they did not know Plame's identity was classified. The law requires that the culprit is aware of the significance of his actions to put him in jail.
But the Bush administration would nevertheless look fairly tawdry if it tried to dodge the bullet with legal niceties. And in any case, it is far from over. It will be a long autumn in Washington this year.
Wilson seems content to let the show play itself out. He does not appear the sort of person to dodge a fight or, for that matter, the national spotlight. He was the US charge d'affaires in Baghdad when the Iraqi government ordered diplomats to register their nationals, and in effect hand them over as human shields. Wilson turned up to a press briefing with a noose around his neck, telling the Iraqis that not only could they hang him but: "I'll bring the fucking rope."
Valerie Wilson looks on smiling from half a dozen photographs arranged around Wilson's office, looking less like Hollywood's idea of a spy than Madison Avenue's ideal of American womanhood: a 40-year-old with a thick bob of blond hair over a tanned face brimming with health as she poses with the couple's three-year-old twins. He laughs when asked what was it like being married to a real secret agent. They used to live normal Washington lives, he insists, except that no one else, not even her relatives, knew what she really did for a living.
Among the family shots are a telling series of pictures of Wilson at work. There is a shot of him with Saddam, one with Clinton, and a couple with former president George Bush, who took a shine to him and gave him his first ambassadorship. One picture shows Wilson and the elder Bush walking through the White House grounds deep in conversation, 30 hours before the launch of the first Gulf war.
"He was asking what the Iraqis were like, what they were going through, what the country was like. He was asking all the questions you would want a leader to ask," Wilson recalls.
The unspoken comparison is with the less reflective George Junior, but Wilson is proud of his photos because he believes they rebut Republican taunts that he is a Democratic stooge. He did, he admits, contribute money to the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000, but adds that he also sent a contribution to the Bush-Cheney headquarters early in the Republican primaries.
He is walking out into the street when he makes the quip about his epitaph. His wife will probably stay at the agency, he believes, but move to less exciting work. They will still go out at night, but will have to fend off more questions.
"She was happy to talk about what she does raising twin children, but I think she declined to talk about what score she got firing her AK-47," he says archly, before a flash of regret crosses his face.
"I'm sorry for what they did to her and if there was something I could do to restore her anonymity, I would do it in a New York minute," he says.
It is the lament of a secret agent's husband, who knows his wife will never again be able to hide in the shadows.
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