Da Chicago Tribune del 11/03/2006

Plame's identity, if truly a secret, was thinly veiled

di John Crewdson

WASHINGTON -- The question of whether Valerie Plame's employment by the Central Intelligence Agency was a secret is the key issue in the two-year investigation to determine if someone broke the law by leaking her CIA affiliation to the news media.

Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald contends that Plame's friends "had no idea she had another life." But Plame's secret life could be easily penetrated with the right computer sleuthing and an understanding of how the CIA's covert employees work.

When the Tribune searched for Plame on an Internet service that sells public information about private individuals to its subscribers, it got a report of more than 7,600 words. Included was the fact that in the early 1990s her address was "AMERICAN EMBASSY ATHENS ST, APO NEW YORK NY 09255."

A former senior American diplomat in Athens, who remembers Plame as "pleasant, very well-read, bright," said he had been aware that Plame, who was posing as a junior consular officer, really worked for the CIA.

According to CIA veterans, U.S. intelligence officers working in American embassies under "diplomatic cover" are almost invariably known to friendly and opposition intelligence services alike.

"If you were in an embassy," said a former CIA officer who posed as a U.S. diplomat in several countries, "you could count 100 percent on the Soviets knowing."

Plame's true function likely would have been known to friendly intelligence agencies as well. The former senior diplomat recalled, for example, that she served as one of the "control officers" coordinating the visit of President George H.W. Bush to Greece and Turkey in July 1991.

After the completion of her Athens tour, the CIA reportedly sent Plame to study in Europe. According to her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Plame was living in Brussels when the couple first met in 1997.

Two years later, when Plame made a $1,000 contribution to Vice President Al Gore, she listed her employer as Brewster-Jennings & Associates, a Boston company apparently set up by the CIA to provide "commercial cover" for some of its operatives.

Brewster-Jennings was not a terribly convincing cover. According to Dun & Bradstreet, the company, created in 1994, is a "legal services office" grossing $60,000 a year and headed by a chief executive named Victor Brewster. Commercial databases accessible by the Tribune contain no indication that such a person exists.

Another sign of Brewster-Jennings' link to the CIA came from the online résumé of a Washington attorney, who until last week claimed to have been employed by Brewster-Jennings as an "engineering consultant" from 1985 to 1989 and to have served from 1989 to 1995 as a CIA "case officer," the agency's term for field operatives who collect information from paid informants.

On Wednesday the Tribune left a voice mail and two e-mail messages asking about the juxtaposition of the attorney's career with Brewster-Jennings and the CIA. On Thursday, the Brewster-Jennings and CIA entries had disappeared from the online résumé. The attorney never returned any of the messages left by the Tribune.

CIA veterans doubt cover

After Plame left her diplomatic post and joined Brewster-Jennings, she became what is known in CIA parlance as an "NOC," shorthand for an intelligence officer working under "non-official cover." But several CIA veterans questioned how someone with an embassy background could have successfully passed herself off as a private-sector consultant with no government connections.

Genuine NOCs, a CIA veteran said, "never use an official address. If she had [a diplomatic] address, her whole cover's completely phony. I used to run NOCs. I was in an embassy. I'd go out and meet them, clandestine meetings. I'd pay them cash to run assets or take trips. I'd give them a big bundle of cash. But they could never use an embassy address, ever."

Another CIA veteran with 20 years of service agreed that "the key is the [embassy] address. That is completely unacceptable for an NOC. She wasn't an NOC, period."

After Plame was transferred back to CIA headquarters in the mid-1990s, she continued to pass herself off as a private energy consultant. But the first CIA veteran noted: "You never let a true NOC go into an official facility. You don't drive into headquarters with your car, ever."

A senior U.S. intelligence official, who like the others quoted in this article spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that Plame "may not be alone in that category, so I don't want to suggest she was the only one. But it would be a fair assumption that a true-blue NOC is not someone who has a headquarters job at any point or an embassy job at any point."

According to Fitzgerald, the chief federal prosecutor in Chicago who was tapped to head the Plame investigation, Plame's "cover was blown" in July 2003, when columnist Robert Novak disclosed that Plame "is an agency [CIA] operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Two senior Bush administration officials, Novak said, had told him that Plame suggested sending her husband, former ambassador Wilson, to Africa to look into reports that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium ore from the nation of Niger.

A motive to leak?

Novak's column followed by eight days an op-ed article by Wilson in The New York Times recounting his failure to find any evidence of such a purchase during his visit to Niger.

Wilson was responding to President Bush's assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address, on the eve of the war with Iraq, that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert CIA operative is a violation of the federal Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Although prosecutor Fitzgerald has yet to accuse anyone of violating that law, he won a grand jury indictment charging former vice presidential chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby with perjury and obstructing justice for allegedly making false statements under oath about how and when he learned of Plame's CIA employment, and when he told reporters.

Libby's lawyers, who now question whether Plame's CIA employment really was secret at the time Novak's column appeared, have asked a federal judge to provide them with documents that bear on that issue.

If Plame's employment was not a legitimate secret, and if the national security was not harmed by its disclosure, Libby's lawyers argue, their client would have had no motive to lie about his conversations with reporters.

Fitzgerald has told the court he does not intend to introduce evidence showing that Plame's career, the CIA's operations or the national security were harmed by the disclosure of her CIA affiliation.

Plame's lawyer, Christopher Wolf, said his client would have no comment on any aspect of her CIA career. The CIA also declined comment on any aspect of the Plame case.

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