WASHINGTON — At CIA Director George Tenet's request, the Justice Department is looking into an allegation that a White House official leaked the name of an undercover officer to a journalist, administration officials said Saturday.
The operative's identity was published in July after her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly challenged President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium ore from Africa, which can be used in nuclear weapons. Bush later backed away from the claim.
The intentional disclosure of a covert operative's identity can violate federal law.
A senior administration official said two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and revealed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife. That was shortly after Wilson revealed in July that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson's account eventually touched off a controversy over Bush's use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.
"Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.
Sources familiar with the conversations said the leakers' allegation was that Wilson had benefited from nepotism because the Niger mission had been his wife's idea. Wilson said in an interview Saturday that a reporter had told him that the leaker said, "The real issue is Wilson and his wife."
The official would not name the leakers for the record and would not name the journalists. The official said he had no indication that Bush knew about the calls. Columnist Robert Novak published the agent's name in a July column about Wilson's mission.
It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another. Asked about the motive for describing the leaks, the senior official said the leaks were "wrong and a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility."
Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife's occupation, has suggested publicly that he believes Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, broke her cover. He said Aug. 21 at a public forum in Seattle that it was of keen interest to him "to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he knows of no leaks about Wilson's wife. "That is not the way this White House operates, and no one would be authorized to do such a thing," McClellan said. "I don't have any information beyond an anonymous source in a media report to suggest there is anything to this. If someone has information of this nature, then he or she should report it to the Department of Justice."
Rove, asked to comment, responded through McClellan, who said of Wilson's comments: "It is a ridiculous suggestion, and it is simply not true." McClellan was asked about Wilson's charge at a White House briefing Sept. 14 and said the accusation was "totally ridiculous."
Administration officials said Tenet sent a memo to the Justice Department raising a series of questions about whether a leaker had broken federal law by disclosing the identity of an undercover officer. The CIA request was reported Friday night by MSNBC.com. Administration sources familiar with the matter said the Justice Department is determining whether a formal investigation is warranted.
The CIA request could reopen the rift between the White House and the intelligence community that burst into view in July when Bush and his senior aides blamed Tenet for the inclusion of the discredited uranium claim — the so-called "16 words" — in the State of the Union address in January.
Tenet issued a statement taking responsibility for the CIA's approval of the address before it was delivered, but made clear the CIA had earlier warned the White House not to use the uranium ore allegations. After an ensuing rush of leaks over White House handling of intelligence, Bush's aides said they believed in retrospect it had been a political mistake to blame Tenet.
The Intelligence Protection Act, passed in 1982, imposes maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $50,000 fines for unauthorized disclosure by government employees with access to classified data.
Members of the administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been harshly critical of unauthorized leakers, and White House spokesmen are often dismissive of questions about news reports based on unnamed sources. The FBI is investigating members of the Senate for possibly leaking intercept information about Osama bin Laden.
The only recipient of a leak about the identity of Wilson's wife who went public with it was Novak, the conservative syndicated columnist, who wrote in The Washington Post and other newspapers on July 14 that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, "is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." He added, "Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger."
When Novak told a CIA spokesman he was going to do a column about Wilson's wife, the spokesman urged him not to print her name "for security reasons," according to one CIA official. Intelligence officials said they believed Novak understood there were reasons other than Plame's personal security not to use her name, even though the CIA has declined to confirm whether she was undercover.
Novak said in an interview Friday night that the request came at the end of a conversation about Wilson's trip to Niger and his wife's role in it. "They said it's doubtful she'll ever again have a foreign assignment," he said. "They said if her name was printed, it might be difficult if she was traveling abroad, and they said they would prefer I didn't use her name. It was a very weak request. If it was put on a stronger basis, I would have considered it."
After the column ran, the CIA began a damage assessment of whether any foreign contacts Plame had made over the years, or projects she had worked on, had been compromised. CIA officials working undercover often pass themselves off as members of the diplomatic corps or, if they are in deeper cover, called "non-official cover," as business members or other types of employees not associated with the U.S. government. Sometimes they use their real names or continue to use false names until they have gone through a lengthy, secretive process to re-emerge as "overt" employees no longer undercover.
The CIA occasionally asks news organizations to withhold the names of undercover agents from developing stories. News organizations usually comply. An intelligence official told The Post Saturday that no further harm would come from repeating Plame's name.
Wilson was acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991. He was in the diplomatic service from 1976 until 1998, and was the Clinton administration's senior director of African affairs on the National Security Council. He is now an international business consultant. Wilson said the mission to Niger was unpaid except for expenses.
Wilson said he believes an inquiry from Cheney's office launched his eight-day mission to Niger in February 2002 to check the uranium claim, which turned out to be based at least partly on forged documents. "The way it was briefed to me was that the office of the vice president had expressed an interest in a report covering uranium purchases by Iraq from Niger," Wilson said in a telephone interview Saturday.
He said that if Novak's account is accurate, the leak was part of "a deliberate attempt on the part of the White House to intimidate others and make them think twice about coming forward."
"There is a whole group of intelligence analysts who have spoken anonymously to the press about such things as pressure they felt when Cheney and others may have come out there," Wilson said. "They have not attached their names to their stories and this is clearly designed to let them know that if they were to come out publicly or if they were to respond to the various congressional statements that they wanted to hear from these people in hearings, that they can expect the same thing from the White House."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has been pushing the FBI to investigate the disclosure, said it "not only put an agent's life in danger, but many of that agent's sources and contacts."