July 14, 2006

Dishonoring Those Who Serve

Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe WilsonToday, Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband Ambassador Joe Wilson filed a civil suit against Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney's former Chief of Staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and 10 as-yet-unidentified Bush Administration officials. While the ongoing criminal investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald will likely mean that the Wilsons' suit will be put on hold by the courts until Mr. Fitzpatrick concludes his investigation and any resultant trials, it remains a very public broadside fired at the Bush White House.

The timing of the suit is ostensibly rooted in the need to file it before the statute of limitations runs out, but it is also (at a minimum) fortuitous as columnist Robert Novak has resurfaced to make the rounds of various talking head programs to reiterate his most recent published denial that he did anything wrong in revealing that Plame was a non-official-cover (NOC) agent of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Once again, those backing all things Bush/Cheney are making every effort to lend credibility to the idea that Joe Wilson's 2003 op-ed piece in the New York Times stating that Iraq had not, in fact, tried to purchase yellow cake uranium from Niger in the run-up to the Iraq War, was politically motivated rather than the duty of a patriot who had run out options. Once more, there are attempts to justify the outing of his wife's position as just desserts by those who believe Wilson should have been loyal to President Bush rather than to his country, and worse, there are again declarations that because there is some uncertainty over whether Ms. Plame fit the legal definition of "covert," that national security was in no way harmed by her unmasking.

The matters of law in both the special prosecutor's investigation and the civil suit are myriad and complex - Was Plame's agency status legally covert? Can a sitting vice president be called for a civil trial? Who was the original source of the information on Plame given to Robert Novak? - but in many ways, they are beside the point. The real issue here is further damage to the battered Central Intelligence Agency and the morale of the men and women who work for it.

Regardless of whether the Wilson's win their civil suit; regardless of whether Patrick Fitzgerald successfully prosecutes anyone involved in the Plame Affair in criminal court; regardless of the political damage to the Bush Administration; regardless of Ambassador Wilson's motivations for his op-ed piece; and regardless of whether the outing of Ms. Plame directly undermined national security; the substantive question that needs to be asked is this: How does disclosing the identity of a non-official-cover agent for political purposes affect the ability of the CIA to do its job?

Hammered by the press, Congress and the president in the aftermath of September 11th for failing to do more to stop that tragedy, the Central Intelligence Agency has seen the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) removed from the apex of the U.S. intelligence community and supplanted by a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI). In the wake of DCI George Tenet's retirement, the CIA further endured the leadership of Congressman Porter Goss, who was reported to have inflicted significant damage to agency morale by bringing his political staff with him when he assumed control, driving out some of the most experienced agents at Central Intelligence. Today, the reputation of the CIA is little more than a pale shadow of its former self.

But what is more important than agency leadership, the CIA's place in the tangled pecking order of the intelligence community or staff changes, is the fundamental trust that covert and NOC agents must have that they will not be revealed by their own side, and that the dangers they endure and the risks they take are above politics. Without that trust, the ability of the Central Intelligence Agency to perform truly high-risk and objective operations is damaged significantly, if not fatally.

After 9/11, it became common knowledge that one of the biggest voids in the arsenal of the United States is in the area of human intelligence. Rife with signal intelligence, electronic intelligence, communications intelligence and imagery intelligence capability through organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. both lacks the ability to infiltrate many of the groups that would do our nation and its people harm, and the capacity to accurately and effectively analyze the flood of non-human data that we gather.

Revealing the identity of an agent for political reasons can only discourage those covert and non-official personnel still serving the CIA from remaining within its ranks. It can only cause them to avoid risks and to question whether the people they serve at the highest levels of government understand and appreciate what they do for a living. It can only make recruiting men and women to bolster depleted American human intelligence resources that much harder.

In short, it adds unnecessary difficulty to the ability of the Central Intelligence Agency to do its job, and if it is more arduous for the CIA to carry out its intelligence gathering and analysis duties, then it endangers Americans.

Potential criminal convictions and civil victories aside, that is what matters in the end. Unfortunately it does not appear to have mattered to either the people who outed Valerie Plame, or to those who, in defending that action, reveal themselves to be not only shortsighted and ignorant, but craven and without honor.

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