In a surprise, closed-door debate, Senate Democrats demanded an investigation of pre-Iraq War intelligence. Here's an issue for them: Assess the validity of the claim that Valerie Plame's status was "covert," or even properly classified, given the wretched tradecraft by the Central Intelligence Agency throughout the entire episode. It was, after all, the CIA that requested the "leak" investigation, alleging that one of its agents had been outed in Bob Novak's July 14, 2003, column. Yet it was the CIA's bizarre conduct that led inexorably to Ms. Plame's unveiling.
When the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was being negotiated, Senate Select Committee Chairman Barry Goldwater was adamant: If the CIA desired a law making it illegal to expose one of its deep cover employees, then the agency must do a much better job of protecting their cover. That is why a criterion for any prosecution under the act is that the government was taking "affirmative measures" to conceal the protected person's relationship to the intelligence agency. Two decades later, the CIA, either purposely or with gross negligence, made a series of decisions that led to Ms. Plame becoming a household name.
First: The CIA sent her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger on a sensitive mission regarding WMD. He was to determine whether Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake, an essential ingredient for nonconventional weapons. However, it was Ms. Plame, not Mr. Wilson, who was the WMD expert. Moreover, Mr. Wilson had no intelligence background, was never a senior person in Niger when he was in the State Department, and was opposed to the administration's Iraq policy. The assignment was given, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, at Ms. Plame's suggestion.
Second: Mr. Wilson was not required to sign a confidentiality agreement, a mandatory act for the rest of us who either carry out any similar CIA assignment or who represent CIA clients.
Third: When he returned from Niger, Mr. Wilson was not required to write a report, but rather merely to provide an oral briefing. That information was not sent to the White House. If this mission to Niger were so important, wouldn't a competent intelligence agency want a thoughtful written assessment from the "missionary," if for no other reason than to establish a record to refute any subsequent misrepresentation of that assessment? Because it was the vice president who initially inquired about Niger and the yellowcake (although he had nothing to do with Mr. Wilson being sent), it is curious that neither his office nor the president's were privy to the fruits of Mr. Wilson's oral report.
Fourth: Although Mr. Wilson did not have to write even one word for the agency that sent him on the mission at taxpayer's expense, over a year later he was permitted to tell all about this sensitive assignment in the New York Times. For the rest of us, writing about such an assignment would mean we'd have to bring our proposed op-ed before the CIA's Prepublication Review Board and spend countless hours arguing over every word to be published. Congressional oversight committees should want to know who at the CIA permitted the publication of the article, which, it has been reported, did not jibe with the thrust of Mr. Wilson's oral briefing. For starters, if the piece had been properly vetted at the CIA, someone should have known that the agency never briefed the vice president on the trip, as claimed by Mr. Wilson in his op-ed.
Fifth: More important than the inaccuracies is the fact that, if the CIA truly, truly, truly had wanted Ms. Plame's identity to be secret, it never would have permitted her spouse to write the op-ed. Did no one at Langley think that her identity could be compromised if her spouse wrote a piece discussing a foreign mission about a volatile political issue that focused on her expertise? The obvious question a sophisticated journalist such as Mr. Novak asked after "Why did the CIA send Wilson?" was "Who is Wilson?" After being told by a still-unnamed administration source that Mr. Wilson's "wife" suggested him for the assignment, Mr. Novak went to Who's Who, which reveals "Valerie Plame" as Mr. Wilson's spouse.
Sixth: CIA incompetence did not end there. When Mr. Novak called the agency to verify Ms. Plame's employment, it not only did so, but failed to go beyond the perfunctory request not to publish. Every experienced Washington journalist knows that when the CIA really does not want something public, there are serious requests from the top, usually the director. Only the press office talked to Mr. Novak.
Seventh: Although high-ranking Justice Department officials are prohibited from political activity, the CIA had no problem permitting its deep cover or classified employee from making political contributions under the name "Wilson, Valerie E.," information publicly available at the FEC.
The CIA conduct in this matter is either a brilliant covert action against the White House or inept intelligence tradecraft. It is up to Congress to decide which.
Ms. Toensing, a Washington lawyer, is a former chief counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee and former deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration.