Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Oyez Oyez

This is a case when “National Security” seems to defy common (ordinary) sense.

About six weeks ago, I attended a meeting whose subject was the way ahead in Iraq. By happenstance, I sat beside a very “down-market” attired former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, which is why the following caught my eye.

In case you can’t immediately place the name, he was the one who determined that the pre-March 2003 “intelligence” that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire “yellow cake” from Niger was a hoax. If you still can’t place him, his spouse is Valerie Plame Wilson – she whose “outing” as a covert CIA operative by columnist Robert Novak eventually led to the trial and conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s former chief of staff, followed by a presidential commutation of the 30-month prison sentence.

Plame has been trying to get the CIA’s clearance to publish her memoirs. The agency, after an extensive review and back-tracking on original objections, agreed to let the memoir pass except for one item: the date Plame began working for the CIA up to January 2002, the earliest date the agency acknowledges she was an employee.

Plame and her book publisher filed suit against the agency in federal court for redress. They agued that the information was already in the public domain and, therefore, including it within the book would not reveal any classified information.

According to court documents, Plame had requested, before she resigned from the CIA, that the agency waive the minimum age requirement to receive proceeds from a deferred annuity. A letter dated February 10, 2006 from the agency’s Chief of Retirement and Insurance Services pointed out that the minimum age provision for starting the payments was statutory and could not be waived. The letter, on CIA stationary with no classification marking and sent via first class mail, listed the dates that Plame began work at the CIA and the date, under the law, that she could start drawing the annuity.

In January 2007, Representative Jay Inslee (WA) introduced a private bill to set aside the age requirement for Plame. Part of Inslee’s remarks on introducing the measure included the February 10, 2006 CIA letter with the employment dates, all of which became part of the publicly available Congressional Record (January 16, 2007, pp. E118-E119).

The agency’s argument, which carried the day with the judge, essentially was that it had never officially acknowledged in public that Plame worked for the CIA at any time before January 1, 2002. The February 10, 2006 letter on CIA letterhead was not a public document. The fact that the letter later appeared in the Congressional Record was not done with the approval of the agency. In a somewhat bizarre logic chain, the agency sent a letter to the Clerk of the House of Representatives informing the Clerk that the February 10, 2006 letter reprinted in the Congressional Record, although not marked as classified, did in fact contain classified information. But the CIA did not specify what information was classified nor did it ask the Clerk to take any action. Thus, from Langley’s perspective, even though anyone with access to the internet could get the information from the on-line Congressional Record, Plame’s employment record prior to January 2002 remained classified and she could not include it in her memoir.

Supporting documentation from the Deputy CIA Director concentrated on the need to protect “sources and methods” – i.e., human agents – using official and non-official cover and “front” organizations of the CIA that Plame may have used in her earlier work and that could still be extant. The documentation suggests that part of her covert activities were directed against terrorist organizations, which might explain why the agency is skittish about Plame’s work prior to the start of 2002.

In the end, however, the judge seemed swayed by the agency’s argument that as long as it does not officially confirm anything – even though it is in the public domain – there remains a degree of ambiguity that will give pause to others and, in so doing, offers some degree of “protection” from adverse reactions by foreign governments. In this regard, the classic example – hauled out once again – is the Cold-War era vignette involving the shoot-down over Soviet territory of Gary Powers’ U-2 just days before a much-anticipated summit in Paris between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. According to Khrushchev, he was willing to let the meeting happen until Eisenhower not only acknowledged the incident but also said that he, not some underling in the State or Defense Departments, had approved the mission. For a head of state to admit in public that he had willfully violated another country’s sovereignty was too much a breach of diplomacy for business as usual.

Here again is a case where CIA claims of possible compromise of sources and methods may be more a cover hiding embarrassing lapses, including – given the date of Plame’s officially acknowledged employment at the CIA – ones that could have contributed to the success of four plane hijackings on 9/11 and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. On the other hand, maybe there are sources that could be endangered somehow by “official” confirmation that would not otherwise be.

For those who are really interested, you will have to wait until the book is published and you can plug in the dates from the Congressional Record. Then you can be the judge and draw your own conclusions.

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