Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The spy who was thrown into the cold

The scandal that saw a CIA agent unmasked could spell serious trouble for the Bush administration



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.

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.

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