Contrary to published reports, a State Department memorandum at the center of the investigation into the leak of the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, appears to offer no particular indication that Ms. Plame's role at the agency was classified or covert.
The memo, drafted by the then head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and addressed to the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, was carried aboard Air Force One as President Bush departed for Africa in July 2003. A declassified version of the document was obtained by The New York Sun on Saturday.
A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, is investigating whether White House officials illegally leaked Ms. Plame's CIA connection as part of a campaign to rebut or retaliate against her husband, Joseph Wilson IV, a former ambassador who traveled to Niger in 2002 at the CIA's request to look into reports that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium there. He later became an open critic of the administration.
Mr. Fitzgerald's investigators have attempted to establish a precise chain of custody for the document because it is one way some White House officials might have learned that Mr. Wilson's wife was a CIA employee, working in the agency's weapons of mass destruction division.
"In a February 19,2002, meeting convened by Valerie Wilson, a CIA WMD manager, and the wife of Joe Wilson, he previewed his plans and rationale for going to Niger," the memo from the State Department intelligence chief, Carl Ford Jr., said. Mr. Ford also drafted an earlier version of the memo, addressed to an undersecretary of state, Marc Grossman. Mr. Grossman apparently sought the information about Mr. Wilson's trip after receiving inquiries from the then chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, I. Lewis Libby.
Mr. Libby was indicted last year on charges he perjured himself and obstructed justice during the investigation. He has pleaded not guilty. While the indictment alleges that he discussed Ms. Plame with reporters, neither Mr. Libby nor any other person has been charged with illegally disclosing the CIA employee's identity.
The gist of Mr. Ford's memo has been previously reported in news accounts, but it has not been quoted from directly. In addition, the early leaks about the memo were selective, perhaps deliberately so.
A Wall Street Journal article on July 19, 2005, citing an unnamed person familiar with the memo, reported that the memo "made clear that information identifying an agent and her role in her husband's intelligence gathering mission was sensitive and shouldn't be shared." The Journal account said the paragraph discussing Ms. Plame's role in her husband's trip was marked in a way to indicate it shouldn't be disclosed.
A story the following day in the Washington Post, "Plame's Identity Marked as Secret," said correctly that the paragraph carried the mark "S," signifying the middle level of three major tiers of classification.
Not noted in the previous press reports was the fact that six of the seven paragraphs in the memo are marked "secret," while only one appears to mention Ms. Plame. In addition, virtually every paragraph in the attached supporting documents from the State Department about alleged Iraqi uranium procurement in Niger carries the "secret" designation.
With most, if not all, of the Niger-related documents marked "secret" in a host of places, there is no particular reason a reader would think the classification was derived from Ms. Plame's status or involvement.
An attorney representing a White House official under scrutiny in the investigation said yesterday that the broader context of the document undercuts the idea of a deliberate campaign to expose Ms. Plame.
"It's something that people got very excited about," the lawyer, Robert Luskin, said about the earlier reports on the memo. "The fact that the whole memo was marked this way further substantiates that nobody involved in discussions of her or her role in sending Mr. Wilson had the slightest inkling she was in classified status."
Leaking any information from a classified document is a security violation and sometimes a crime, but deliberately disclosing the identity of a covert operative is a far more grave offense, according to intelligence and legal experts.
Mr. Luskin, who represents President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, said Mr. Rove did not see the memo at the time it was issued.
One attachment to the memo consists of typewritten notes a State Department representative took at a February 19, 2002, meeting where sending Mr. Wilson to Niger was discussed. "Meeting apparently convened by Valerie Wilson, a CIA WMD managerial type and the wife of Amb. Joe Wilson, with the idea that the agency and the larger USG could dispatch Joe to Niger to use his contacts there to sort out the Niger/Iraq uranium sale question," an American diplomat serving as the west and southern Africa division chief in the State Department's intelligence and research bureau, Douglas Rohn, wrote.
Mr. Wilson told the Sun yesterday that the State Department's account of how his trip was arranged was "absolutely inaccurate."
"The meeting was not convened by my wife," the former ambassador said. "She had, as it now turns out, the misfortune of having escorted me into the building. ... She left before the meeting started." He also said that the subject of his going to Niger did not arise until halfway through the session.
Mr. Wilson acknowledged that his wife drafted a memo describing his previous involvement with Niger, but he said she did so at the request of her supervisor. A Senate Intelligence Committee report issued in July 2004 said Ms. Plame "suggested his name for the trip."
The memoranda also make clear that the State Department was eager to distance itself from Mr. Wilson after he wrote a New York Times op-ed piece attacking Mr. Bush's statement in the 2003 State of the Union address that British intelligence believed that Iraq was seeking a large quantity of uranium in Africa.
The intelligence bureau at Foggy Bottom "was not Ambassador Wilson's point of contact in either the department or the intelligence community," the memo addressed to Mr. Powell reads. It notes that Mr. Wilson's report was "disseminated throughout the intelligence and policy communities by CIA."
Mr. Rohn's notes also suggest that State Department officials opposed sending Mr. Wilson because they thought reporting from the embassy in Niamey was adequate.
A cable attached to the key memoranda indicates that on September 10, 2001, one day before the terrorist attacks on America, Prime Minister Amadou of Niger told embassy officials "that there were buyers like Iraq who would pay more for Niger's uranium than France." The cable also said American officials received "frequent leadpipe guarantees by the French ambassador here that no uranium diversion to rogue states is possible." A Senate report discussed the alleged comment from Mr. Amadou, but did not give the exact date.
The State Department documents were released to the Sun in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in July 2005. A spokeswoman for the department said no one was available to discuss the matter yesterday.