Outing Plame Is More Damaging than All Other American Scandals

News at Home

Mr. Schocket is an assistant professor of history at Bowling Green State University and a writer for the History News Service.

This summer, apparently out of political motives, high Bush administration officials exposed the name of a CIA agent to columnist Robert Novak. For more than two months, the president did nothing to investigate or even denounce this serious breach of national security.

In the long list of presidential misdeeds and scandals, this one stands out. It's the first time a president has possibly connived at what was essentially an act of treason.

Not that there's been a shortage of past Oval Office shenanigans. Presidents and their underlings have committed numerous immoral, illegal or dodgy acts. They've defied the Supreme Court, lied to Congress and spied on their political enemies.

Rascals they may have been, but no former administration betrayed national security and put the lives of American agents in danger for the sake of politics. Bush set the tone for his staff by keeping silent until the Justice Department began its investigation into the matter last month.

The current affair began when two senior Bush administration officials revealed the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, IV. The Bush administration sent him to Niger last fall to learn whether Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from that African country. Revealing her identity was a clumsy attempt to retaliate for Wilson's criticism of Bush's claims concerning Iraq's efforts to gain nuclear weapons.

Plame formerly worked undercover in a CIA's unit on weapons of mass destruction. Not only did the leakers endanger her life and the lives of people she had contacted abroad, but it placed in jeopardy initiatives undertaken in the nation's war on terrorism. Such a betrayal is no different from having wartime American public officials announce publicly the locations of American ships, planes or troops.

This scandal is unique in that it is the first time that members of a presidential administration have sought political gain through an illegal breach of national security.

The least damaging but most sensational presidential scandals have been about -- what else? -- sex. Andrew Jackson's secretary of war, John Eaton, dated a married woman, and married her soon after her husband's death. The resulting outcry, including accusations that Peggy Eaton was a prostitute, ended with the resignation of most of Jackson's cabinet in 1831.

Grover Cleveland raised eyebrows in 1886 when he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom. Bill Clinton's peccadillo with Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent train of implausible denials and cagey admissions led to his impeachment. None of these scandals, though, put the United States or Americans at risk.

Rather than presidential lust, the greed of presidents' associates generated other scandals. Ulysses S. Grant's vice president, Schuyler Colfax, accepted corporate stocks for supporting federal land giveaways to railroad companies in 1873. Warren G. Harding's secretary of the interior pocketed $300,000 in 1921 in exchange for giving two shady oil men access to national petroleum reserves. And Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973 under the cloud of a criminal investigation. These men cost the republic money, but they never risked shedding American blood.

Then there's Andrew Johnson's 1867 political miscalculation, which was more farcical than treasonable. By firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act -- a law Republican legislators passed daring Johnson to dismiss congressional favorite Stanton. Johnson was impeached and came within one vote of being removed from office, because he broke a law that was later declared unconstitutional.

Unlike members of the Bush administration, Johnson harmed no one except himself. The two scandals that come closest to rivaling the current one's gravity occurred under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. In the Iran-contra affair of the mid-1980s, White House operatives defied Congress's prohibition against funding Nicaraguan contra rebels and Reagan's policy forbidding negotiations with terrorists. Hoping to gain leverage with terrorist groups, Reagan officials secretly sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to buy guns for the contras. In the ensuing mess, several administration members lied to Congress. Their actions were stupid and illegal, but not dangerous to American lives.

Pure politics plunged Nixon into machinations potentially undermining the nation's political system. In 1972, Nixon's political operatives broke into Democratic national headquarters, in the Watergate Hotel, thus giving us an enduring political term. They subsequently lied about it, and Nixon resisted a judge's order and congressional inquiries before resigning to avoid impeachment.

In this litany of presidential scandals, the Bush administration's crime is the most damaging. When campaigning for president, Bush promised to restore honor to the Oval Office. But by allowing members of his administration to pursue petty political ends while endangering the nation, he has sullied the presidency more than any of his predecessors.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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James - 12/16/2003

One should speak reverentially when invoking the name Ronald Reagan. That Man brought the Soviet Union to its' knees.

In contrast, look at Bill Clinton: the only one before him on bended knee was Monica Lewinsky!

If the Iranians saw fit to release hostages upon President Reagan's ascension to office, it is only because they knew he was a no-nonsense guy.

Elizabeth Baker - 11/28/2003

Why should Roberet Novak not be held in jail until the people IN THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION WHO OUTED BLAME TO HIM ARE TAKEN INTO CUSTODY/..

wunjo - 11/3/2003

Bush & His Men are mean and spiteful people who have no business running anything except a mafia family...which they are...they
are the pit, the bottom, the lowest the US presidency has ever
been dragged to...they are dangerous, irresponsible men who reached their present positions of power illegally by one vote in a decision of the US Supreme Court.
I hope this case turns out to be the Bush Administration's Saturday Night Massacre...that this thread will unravel the
skein of anti-American, illegal schemes they've been weaving since long before the 2000 elections...since PNAC was written down as their declaration of war against the US constitution and the citizens of this country.

Xenophile - 10/27/2003

What is the scandal here? Senior White House officials blew the cover of a CIA operative (and NOC, at that) for petty revenge. Not only was Plame's cover blown, but so was that of the fictional company that she worked for. Lives are likely in danger because of this "I'm gonna tell your secret, so NYAH!" move. I mean, come on man, if that isn't a scandal, then what is? I realize that there is a distressing lack of sex, but still...

David - 10/22/2003

I'm still trying to figure where the scandal is here.

Elia Markell - 10/21/2003

Truly desperate. That's what this effort at overkill is. Having failed to articulate any coherent response to 9/11 or proposed anything like a meaningful alternative to the administration's approach, the critics become ever more shrill in their efforts to demonize the president.

Between the time this article was posted and now, the great Wilson-Plame scandal has dropped ever lower on the media horizon, nearly approaching the obscurity it has always merited. Unlike Prof. Shocket, even the media know a dead horse after they've beaten it sufficiently.

Prof. Shocket accepts every facet of the story as it has been spun by the president's critiics. For instance, "two senior administration officials." We do not yet know anything about the source of the "leak," if it was that, on Plame. Yet Shocket must pretend that this is established to even begin to weave the horror story he tells. We do not yet know whether Plame was in fact undercover still, unlikely given the numbers who say they already knew of her CIA activities. Also, utterly unlikely given the fact that it was her OWN HUSBAND who outed his own involvement in all this with a very public op-ed piece attacking Bush, which appears to be a bit of an obsession with him. I ask. Would YOU attack the president who had sent you (supposedly) on a sensitive secret mission by disclosing that mission in the NYTs all the while knowing your own wife was engaged in life-endangering work also of a secret nature? I wouldn't. I would not even dream of doing it. Yet he did. Given how little solid evidence we have yet about Plame, I would think Shocket might have expressed just a wee bit more hesitation about the whole hook and sinker he's got in his mouth.

As for my "supposedly" above, Shocket seems unwilling even to consider the most curious aspects of this case. How in fact did a bitter, almost flaky, foe of the Bush administration get sent to Niger on this mission in the first place? Early reports kept claiming Cheney sent him. This does not appear to be true. So who did? And why? We do know for sure that elements in the CIA are smarting about the failures of the agency regarding 9/11. We do know elements in it did not approve of the Iraq war or the emphasis of democracy in Iraq, where their traditional "a bastard but he's our bastard" approach is threatened. If any conspiracy of a semi-treasonous nature is what you lust for, I'd look to that source before going after W. You'd think the left, with its decades-old hatred of the CIA, covert operations, and solicitousness to dictators would be leading the charge here against the once-hated agency. Instead, they are the last bastions of defense of the old order, defending the insiders and leakers who really ought to be ferreted out. Ironies, ironies. Will they never cease?

Phoenix Woman - 10/18/2003

Bush rocked by Senate rebellion on Iraq Republicans urge president to get a grip as funding revolt further undermines his authority Julian Borger in Washington
Saturday October 18, 2003
The Guardian >A Republican rebellion in the Senate against White House plans for rebuilding Iraq raised questions yesterday about President George Bush's authority in Washington as he struggles to maintain control of a divided administration. >A late-night Senate vote to turn half the $20bn (£12bn) Iraq reconstruction budget into a loan marked a serious setback for the administration, which had wanted all the money in the form of a grant. It also came as a personal defeat for the president. >On Tuesday, Mr Bush had called in nine Republican rebels and ordered them to support his version of the bill, reportedly slamming a table at one point and refusing to answer their questions. >The outburst did him little good. Eight Republican senators voted against the administration on Thursday. One rebel, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, said: "It was very difficult to stop this train because it made so much sense." >It may prove to be a pivotal moment for the Bush government. Senators of either party defy a popular president at their peril, but this president is no longer all that popular, particularly when it comes to US involvement in Iraq. Fewer than 50% of Americans believe that Mr Bush's leadership can be relied on in a crisis. There's much, much more. And the PlameGate case is a big part of it.

S. Kadison-Shapiro - 10/17/2003

Another scandal not mentioned was the savings and loan scandal. As I recall, a Bush brother and Silverado Savings seem to figure into that story. And the Iran-Contra scandal cannot be dismissed lightly as "stupid and illegal." It contravened the law passed by congress to stop funding the Nicaraguan contras...and these members of congress are the elected representatives of the people. Thus the people in that Republican administration betrayed the will of the people of the United States. To this day, several of these politically pardoned felons work in George W. Bush's administration: Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter, John Negroponte...they still display that hubris and they still believe they are above the law.
And why can't Robert Novak be supoemaed and threatened with jail if he does not reveal his sources? After all, this is of National Security importance. Or is it that only liberal women are put in jail for staying mum?

Steve Brody - 10/17/2003

"And there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Ronald Reagan negotiated with Iranian terrorists holding Americans not to release them until Reagan was inaugurated."

Carolyn, this canard was investigated by a Democrat controlled congress years ago. It has been completely debunked.

Are you now offering to provide evidence overlooked by a Democratically controlled Congress, the Justice Department and the world press to document your silly statement?

“Richard Nixon is said to have negotiated with Thieu of Vietnam to stay away from the Johnson/Humphrey bargaining table, as a way of keeping Humphrey from having a victory to tout in the 1968 election.”

Yes, and it “is said” that the US Government has alien corpses at a secret hangar at Area 51, that the moon landings were faked and that the world is flat. So what. Can you provide any evidence to back up what YOU said?

FYI, It is not an act of treason for a private citizen to negotiate with a foreign government. It may be a violation of the Logan Act, but it is not treason.

You throw the charge “treason” around pretty freely for someone who doesn’t seem to know what it is.

Debbie Sadler - 10/17/2003

I would e-mail this to my anti Bush friends, as I do regulary, daily, but I don't see an e-mail link on your website. This should be out there in the dominant elite propaganda press. Hopefully, the folly of this administration will bring it down. Thanks for writing this.

Herodotus - 10/17/2003

Is it your suggestion that the various teenagers he is accused of having tried to meet were secretly Administration plants? Are you interested in a real discussion of the Ritter issue or are you trying to just throw up more white smoke?

P. Toenies - 10/17/2003

The article states "The current affair began when two senior Bush administration officials revealed the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, IV." Who are the two senior Bush adminstration officials? Until those officials are named if they exist at all, the extent of the scandal can not be gauged.

For the critics of the Bush administration, this is about politics under the guise of national security. The author is premature and hyperbolic to call this event the most serious scandal in American history.

Carolyn Kay - 10/17/2003

Isn't it worth mentioning, at least in passing, that treason may have been committed by two Republicans IN ORDER TO GAIN THE PRESIDENCY?

Richard Nixon is said to have negotiated with Thieu of Vietnam to stay away from the Johnson/Humphrey bargaining table, as a way of keeping Humphrey from having a victory to tout in the 1968 election.

And there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Ronald Reagan negotiated with Iranian terrorists holding Americans not to release them until Reagan was inaugurated.

FYI, it's an act of treason for a private citizen to negotiate with foreign governments.

And then there was the matter of selling arms for the above-mentioned hostages, against the express will of Congress, and using the profits from that sale to buy arms for central American terrorists, also against the express will of Congress. Isn't there some treason in THERE somewhere?

Carolyn Kay

Josh Greenland - 10/17/2003

You're right, it doesn't matter how it ranks with other scandals. As long as it prevents or helps prevent Bush from being a two-term president, I'll be happy with it.

Larry P - 10/16/2003

CIA Diary
Inside the Company
by Philip Agee
Penguin Books, 1975

Here are some pages and another good Agee site: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/CIA_Diary_Agee.html



PassingFair - 10/16/2003

Since this is a history page, perhaps a little recent history would be appropriate. Remember Scott Ritter? The last time I saw a picture of him it was a mug shot! This administration and its string pulling neocons will stop at nothing to silence those who threaten its aims.

Michael D. Adams - 10/16/2003

Leak Hell! The Plame affair is an intelligence disaster reaching high orders of magnitude. Anyone who treats this fiasco any other way is either ignorant of intelligence matters or is purposely trying to degrade the signal to noise ratio.

What the hell does it matter if it makes the top 10 list.

My biggest fear now is that this Bush will also be a one term President. For the good of the country this Bush and his self propagandizing ship of fools need to be gone long before the 2004 Election... if you can call it an election anymore.

Ever So Sincerely,
Mike Adams

Chris Bennington - 10/16/2003

It was Agee's actions that engendered one of the laws that the Bush administration officials have now broken.

Josh Greenland - 10/16/2003

I thought that in Iran-Contragate, the federal government was working on plans for mass internment of Americans in case too many of us protested against a future war, there were guns and drugs sold by our "anti-communist warriors" to Americans gangs, as well as many other untoward activities. But one last thing, which didn't get a lot of media coverage, was that the Iran-Contra crowd were using their "off the shelf" money to fund electoral campaigns IN THE USA! That is, they were using black op money to throw US elections, like they regularly do in foreign countries.

I think this is a little more serious that "outing" some agent who is the wife of an ambassador, thus already a suspect for intelligence shenanigans.

Chris Bennington - 10/16/2003

Herodotus is correct. It is the leakers who face criminal prosecution for violating the federal disclosure law, not Novak.

On the other hand, there is, to my knowedge, no federally recognized reporter shield law which would protect Novak should he refuse to obey a subpeona or refuse to answer a question put to him about his sources.

If you want the answer -- and we all should given the serious violation of the law committed for petty partisanship -- subpeona, put him on the stand, and then throw him in jail for contempt until he answers.

There is no reason that Novak should be treated any more kindly than Vanessa Leggett, who was jailed by this administration for months about a matter than had nothing to do with national security. Of course, the administration won't do that to Novak because, if he tells the truth, the truth will lead to Cheney or Rove or both, and probably to Bush himself after the fact.

On the issue of Plame's status at the CIA, the Post has pretty much laid to bed the question of whether she was an important CIA undercover asset. That ship has sailed, which is why the right-wing spin machine has moved on to the "Ames already blew her cover" canard. Ames had been spying for the other side since 1985 and was arrested in 1994. If he had blown her cover, why the hell was she still deep undercover almost ten years later? In the words of that cur, James Baker, "that dog won't hunt."

The bottom line is that Bush operatives tried to get back at Wilson for political gain because the administration was getting killed on the uranium story. In so doing they crossed the line, broke several federal laws, and endangered countless individuals. We shouldn't even be discussing whether an independent counsel is necessary, and if the story is true, Bush should be impeached immediately.

delta - 10/16/2003

While I personally don't think this scandal is as big as Watergate, which itself is not as big as lying to the whole country/world to start a war of aggression in order to gain resources (at least we admitted it in the Mexican war!)...but it does a nice job of exposing the utterly hypocritical nature of the vast majority of right wing politicians and pundits. It doesn't even require much thought or debate, it's so obvious. All of us, everyone reading about this story, knows how the press and politicians would be reacting if this charge were being levelled against a Democrat. There would already be a special prosecutor, their career would be essentially over, they would be found guilty long before any kind of trial, and nobody would question it. Also, some guy was writing about how Iraq tried to purchase uranium from some other African nation in the eighties, and, like, come off it man! In the freakin' eighties?? Who cares? We had already sold Hussein enough chemicals and germs to kill half of the middle east, we were encouraging him to attack Iran, and not saying one word in protest when he used chemicals. The documents used to try to prove the Niger connection were deemed "obvious fakes" by Mohammed Elbaredei, head of the IAEA just minutes after he was given them. They had white out, misspellings, and the signatory hadn't been in office for over 10 years. There was no need to send Wilson to Niger, but there was no basis for the imminent threat argument in the first place.

Larry P - 10/16/2003

Novak has gave up sources before. If he had an ounce of class he would end this thing now but of course Novak has no morals whatsoever.

Herodotus - 10/16/2003

It's not a question of whether or not Novak _ought_ to be put on the stand. It's a generally acknowledged aspect of the relationship between journalists and sources that journalists cannot be forced to reveal their sources even in court. This is not a new issue; ask a lawyer.

As the particulars of this case stand, my understanding is that it is the source, not Novak, who could be charged with a crime. Novak may have compounded the error (and certainly ought not to have given the cover company name), but the crime here was in leaking Plame's cover in the first place, to Novak or anyone not cleared to know.

R.K. McCaslin - 10/16/2003

Does anyone remember Philip Agee's book that outed dozens of CIA operatives? What was the response to that? Was it partisan or bipartisan condemnation? I know Agee fled the country and later took up residence in Cuba.

Alec Lloyd - 10/16/2003

Journalists have no Constitutional right to protect sources. As it stands, the investigation cannot succeed: the leaker would have to come forward voluntarily. This of course would mean waiving the right against self-incrimination.

Put Novak on the stand and find out what he knows. If you want to stop damaging violations of national security, make an example. If it is as serious as some think, this is the only way to get to the bottom of it.

Otherwise, it's just another political football to be kicked around until the Beltway press corps gets bored.

Bill Henslee - 10/15/2003

She had been under deep cover but it isn't clear whether she was still a NOC. It appears she may have been in transition from a NOC to diplomatic service cover because she was either past the age for active operational work or because it was suspected that Aldrich Ames or Richard Hansen had blown her NOC cover along with all the others that these moles revealed.

While the revelation was annoying and un-called for, one hopes that the entire clandestine hopes of the CIA weren't resting on the shoulders of this one woman.

cogito - 10/15/2003

She was, according to the Wash Post, under "nonofficial cover, or "NOC." This means the CIA did not admit she worked for it, and her paychecks came from a fictitious corporation. It's the deepest form of cover they have; it allows you to work here or overseas with no trae of connection to the agency. She had been a "NOC" since the 1980s. What exactly she may have done isn't clear, but what is clear is that this leak blew a more than 20 year undercover career and the relationships built undet it. It jeopardizes any contacts she made while undercover, as they are now revealed to have worked with an American spy.

Some people have attempted to laugh this off by depicting her as some kind pf harmless soccer mom, but she was a career operative (not an analyst), under the deepest form of cover the agency has. It's quite a serious leak--reason, should think.

Herodotus - 10/15/2003

Her name and identity outside of the Agency was widely known. Her employment with the CIA was not known outside of her family and her employers at the Agency. That's why she was an undercover agent. The specific problem with the leak was that it identified her as an undercover agent, and as the person who had worked on WMD proliferation and (in Novak's later column) as having the specific cover (with a fake company) that she used when going overseas. Novak's column blew the cover of the fake company and made the link between Plame and the CIA that her friends and past acquaintences as the ambassador's wife did not know about.

Whether this administration was responsible for this, or whether some person accidentally let it slip, Novak ought to have known better than to run with it.

Novak can't be subpoenad with any hope of revealing the information. There's a pretty good set of precedents on this line.

Bill Henslee - 10/15/2003

How would you grade a paper from a student that used as its primary argument that the President "has possibly connived at" an illegal action without any more supporting data than so far offered in the press?

This will probably turn out to be much ado about nothing. According to some accounts by pundits covering the CIA, Ms. Wilson was put on a desk in Washington because there were fears that she had been 'outed' by either Aldrich Ames or Richard Hansen. Quite a few older NOCs are being retired or reshuffled into diplomatic posts.

There may have been some leaks with political purposes here, but I don't think there was any intent to do harm to either a current NOC or any current operations. Not everyone who works in governement is aware of all the nuances of CIA employment, especially when the subject is working on a desk and is the wife of an ambassador.

I don't suppose that anyone wants to go into the absolutely political leaks about CIA operatives and operations by Congressional sources such as "Leaky Leahy" and the former Senator from New Jersey, Torricelli. Both of whom leaked for political purposes and endangered assets who lived in foreign countries.

Alec Lloyd - 10/15/2003

I'm still trying to figure where the scandal is here.

Was she even "under cover" at the time? And if her identity was such a great secret, why was she identified on Wilson's home page?

I'm sorry, but being an ambassador's wife isn't exactly the cover of a cunning master spy. Maybe in 1880 it was tricky, we've rather revised our views on women, I think.

The obvious solution is for the reporters to tell who told them what. Or is national security not as important as "journalistic ethics?"

Blackmail generally involves some sort of coercion or threat. It's victims rarely speculate on who will play them in the TV movie.

And yes, the Church Committee hearings and other efforts to hinder American intelligence collection efforts far exceed the damage done by revealing that Ms. Plame is in fact a Company employee.

Subpoena Novak. That'll solve this pretty quickly.

Ledru Rollin - 10/15/2003

Not to diminish this act of treason but the Iraq war built on false pretenses, the decline
of American prestige, the death of between 6000 and 9000 Iraqi civilians, over 330 dead
American service men and women, and almost 2000 wounded, rank as a war crime and
far surpasses the crime of treason, damage to the CIA agent, or national security. In fact
the unprovoked attack on Iraq is a war crime of the first order and those responsible should
be sent to the Hague for trial immediately, unless first tried for treason.

Herodotus - 10/14/2003

Schocket is not a historian of intelligence. The Church Committee hearings are a mystery to many outside of the field.

John Moser - 10/14/2003

Will no one mention the fact that in the course of the investigations of the CIA carried out by the Democrat-controlled Congress in the 1970s, no less than three agents were "outed"? Is this not relevant to the discussion?

Herodotus - 10/13/2003

I am of two minds on the outing. From what I've read, there are several different accounts on this. It's possible from one reading that someone mentioned this woman's name as if Novak would have known about the link, but then had to cover up the fact that it was a slip up. Other accounts I've read are that some in the Administration played up the leak after it had occurred in order to discredit Wilson by implying that he was able to do what he did through his wife. Wilson's own behavior (not his position on the war, I might clarify) has not helped matters. He championed his own finding (no recent purchases in Niger, though there had been some in the past) and used it to obscure the factually corect statement that Iraq had pursued uranium in AFRICA (the British later identified the Congo for one) as the President said in his State of the Union address.

Far more serious than this woman's name is the leaking of the cover organization that she had used. There are doubtless still agents in the field who were under that cover, and Novak's identification of that may have caused very real problems.

Gus Moner - 10/13/2003

OK, your argument is resonable. But what about the outing itself? No comment on that?

Fair May Labush - 10/13/2003

Sometimes it is the small details, the petty and mundane outrages that finally expose hypocrites and liars for what they really are.

george oilwell - 10/13/2003

It's never interesting to a right-winger, to hear the truth about Commander Bunnypants, is it?

Now, if the article had been about Clinton's zipper - HEY, there's a REAL scandal for you.

Herodotus - 10/13/2003

A historian attempts to explain the events of the past few months authoritatively despite not having been in the White House or near any of the principal figures, relying on secondary accounts and politically motivated think pieces by boths sides in the game. My plumber knows as much. Actually he knows more. He says he doesn't know what is going on or what to think.

The only stuff in here remotely interesting is the real history, which is the litany of events from the 19th century.