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In the Shadows

September 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: The search for the elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq now has a Washington counterpart: The search for an apparent leak from the Bush White House that allegedly exposed an undercover CIA operative.

The operative is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson was sent by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate intelligence claims that Iraq had sought to buy nuclear material from the West African nation of Niger. He found the reports groundless, and so advised the CIA.

Despite Wilson’s warning, the president pointed to the alleged uranium purchase in this year’s State of the Union address as evidence that Iraq sought banned weapons.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

TERENCE SMITH: Wilson went public with his concerns this summer in an op-ed page piece for The New York Times, disputing the president’s remarks. On July 14, his wife was named in a column by conservative writer and CNN contributor Robert Novak. Novak reported that Wilson’s wife had interceded to have him investigate the Niger claim. Wilson alleges that the White House revealed his wife’s name in an effort to intimidate him and others who disagree with White House policy. Novak defended his reporting on CNN yesterday.

ROBERT NOVAK: Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this. In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson’s report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing. When I called the CIA in July, they confirmed Mrs. Wilson’s involvement in a mission for her husband. They asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else. According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives.

TERENCE SMITH: Ambassador Wilson disputes Novak’s characterization of his wife’s work; the CIA also says it tried strenuously to dissuade Novak from identifying Wilson’s wife so as not to endanger her or any agents she might have worked with. Sunday’s Washington Post reported that six journalists had been called by White House officials with the information on Wilson’s wife. One was later identified as Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. On last night’s broadcast, anchor Tom Brokaw explained the circumstances.

TOM BROKAW: NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell has been identified by some as one of the recipients of a leak about the undercover agent. But tonight, Mitchell said that was not the case, that her first discussion with an administration official about the matter was after the Robert Novak column was published. And that discussion, she said, was off the record.

TERENCE SMITH: This afternoon the president said he was determined to get to the bottom of the matter, and seemed to invite reporters to volunteer information.

PRESIDENT BUSH: If people have got solid information, please come forward with it. And that would be people inside the information who are the so-called anonymous sources, or people outside the information… outside the administration. And we could clarify this thing very quickly if people who have got solid evidence would come forward and speak out.

TERENCE SMITH: Nevertheless, some congressional Democrats are requesting a special counsel to investigate the matter. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota:

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: For the sake of perception, I think there is always going to be a cloud hanging over whether or not this Justice Department, run by John Ashcroft, will ever have the objectivity and the independence to do the kind of investigation required.

TERENCE SMITH: For the moment, the administration has resisted that call, saying it will rely on the Department of Justice.

TERENCE SMITH: So are journalists obliged to reveal a source who may have broken a federal law? We get two views on that question. Tom Rosenstiel, a veteran journalist and media critic for both The Los Angeles Times and MSNBC, is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. And Larry Johnson is a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism official at the State Department. Welcome to you both.

Larry Johnson, the president seemed in that clip to be inviting reporters to come forward and tell investigators what they know and who told them what they know.

LARRY JOHNSON: Right.

TERENCE SMITH: Normally they would be very reluctant to do that. Should they do so in this case?

LARRY JOHNSON: The reporters who did not file a story and promised, or given assurance to these individuals that they would be protected, they need to come forward. To hear Bob Novak parsing words like a Clinton lawyer defining sex is outrageous. Sure, they didn’t call him, he called them but they volunteered the information. They took the initiative to divulge the CIA officer’s name. And that is outrageous.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, if published reports are correct half a dozen journalists in this town right now know the name of someone who possibly violated a federal law, committed a crime. What is their obligation either as citizens or reporters?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, their obligation is as reporters to their audience, to the public and they have a confidential relationship with these sources whether they publish this material or not. If they didn’t publish it it’s essentially in their notebook. And the fact that they didn’t publish it doesn’t change their obligation to these people to maintain their confidentiality. Reporters go to jail for protecting the confidentiality of sources, sometimes for information they didn’t publish.

TERENCE SMITH: So in this case reporters first, citizens second?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: No. You are serving the citizens. You are a citizen as a reporter. Your obligation is to the citizen, to the public interest, to protect the ability of other citizens to come to you and know that you are good to your word — that if you promise confidentiality you are not going to back down on that if it becomes inconvenient to or you are under pressure.

TERENCE SMITH: Larry Johnson, explain what the dangers are that are inherent in identifying an undercover operator. What is the worry here?

LARRY JOHNSON: Let’s be very clear about what happened. This is not an alleged abuse. This is a confirmed abuse. I worked with this woman. She started training with me. She has been undercover for three decades, she is not as Bob Novak suggested a CIA analyst. But given that, I was a CIA analyst for four years. I was undercover. I could not divulge to my family outside of my wife that I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency until I left the agency on Sept. 30, 1989. At that point I could admit it.

So the fact that she’s been undercover for three decades and that has been divulged is outrageous because she was put undercover for certain reasons. One, she works in an area where people she meets with overseas could be compromised. When you start tracing back who she met with, even people who innocently met with her, who are not involved in CIA operations, could be compromised. For these journalists to argue that this is no big deal and if I hear another Republican operative suggesting that well, this was just an analyst fine, let them go undercover. Let’s put them overseas and let’s out them and then see how they like it. They won’t be able to stand the heat.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, the notion that Bob Novak put forward: an analyst, not a spy. I talked to the CIA — they urged me not to do it but didn’t suggest it would endanger anyone. What do you think of that reason?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think it’s weak. Bob Novak has done a really dangerous and terrible thing. If you are going to get involved in something like this where you’re bumping up against breaking the law, as a journalist you have a civil disobedience test you have to meet. What’s the public good of this story? What’s the — balanced against what’s the danger to the people involved publishing the story. The third part of the test is, is it necessary in telling the story to do this or is there another way to do it, do you need to divulge this person’s name, in other words, to convey the information you think is of the public interest.

This doesn’t meet any one of those three tests. It’s not of overriding public interest. Novak may be really just an instrument of Republican revenge here. Whatever the public good is of the story is far overwhelmed by the danger to this woman and her network of operatives. And it’s gratuitous. You could have told the story without her name.

TERENCE SMITH: We should point out for the record that we invited Bob Novak to join this discussion. He told me this afternoon that he had said all he had to say on this. Your reaction, Larry?

LARRY JOHNSON: I say this as a registered Republican. I’m on record giving contributions to the George Bush campaign. This is not about partisan politics. This is about a betrayal, a political smear of an individual with no relevance to the story. Publishing her name in that story added nothing to it. His entire intent was correctly as Ambassador Wilson noted: to intimidate, to suggest that there was some impropriety that somehow his wife was in a decision making position to influence his ability to go over and savage a stupid policy, an erroneous policy and frankly, what was a false policy of suggesting that there were nuclear material in Iraq that required this war. This was about a political attack. To pretend that it’s something else and to get into this parsing of words, I tell you, it sickens me to be a Republican to see this.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, if these reports are connect, six reporters were tipped in effect about this information and yet only one chose to publish the name. What does that say to you?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, it tells us that the majority of reporters involved thought this was a lousy story.

TERENCE SMITH: That it was a lousy story or improper to identify the individual?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Improper to identify and actually maybe the story itself just didn’t rise to the level of being much of a story. Frankly, it’s difficult to see how this information discredits Wilson. I can see how it intimidates him but I don’t think it necessarily discredits his research into the Niger claim. But you’ve got journalists in a bind here where they may think that what Novak did was wrong but that doesn’t free them from the obligation to protect these sources who they think may have been doing something badly.

TERENCE SMITH: What about that Larry Johnson because they do have a commitment to these sources, a commitment of confidentiality?

LARRY JOHNSON: I think Tom did a great job of laying out the parameters and procedures reporters should follow. What is clear in this case is that there were other reporters who had the integrity and good judgment to recognize that this was a political hatchet job that this was not about real news. I like Bob Novak and I have been on his other show but in this case he got it wrong. And to hide behind the parsing of words that she was an analyst so therefore it’s okay. No, it’s not okay.

There are a variety of people who work for Central Intelligence Agency who are undercover and to cover this — to protect them for a variety of reasons — and there have been people who start off as analysts that go on as operators. The principle, the sacrosanct, it’s just like protecting sources for journalists, we have to protect the clandestine officers. I commend George Tenet for pursuing this.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there any evidence so far that any damage to national security or individuals has resulted from this?

LARRY JOHNSON: No, not to my knowledge but that’s not the issue. It is the principle. You do not — it is not up to the journalists to decide which officer they are going to out. We saw this in the ’70s with Marchetti and others and Philip Agee who outed officers and they were killed. I don’t want to wait until we get a body count. The principle’s established: Do not divulge the names of these people. In my own career trainee class I did not know Joe’s wife last name; we went by our first initials.

TERENCE SMITH: You were in the same class with her?

LARRY JOHNSON: I was in the same class with her. I was Larry J. In fact, when I first saw her last name I didn’t recognize her until one of other my classmates who’s out now called me up and said, hey. To realize this is a terrific woman, she’s a woman of great integrity and other people that don’t know her were trying to suggest that she is the one that initiated that. That is such nonsense. This is a woman who is very solid, very low key and not about show boating.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, Tom — I’m sorry.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: It just shows, you know the — how hardball has really taken over the town. You know, it’s a sad state of affairs when political infighting gets to this level.

TERENCE SMITH: Very briefly investigations into leaks very rarely produce results. What are the prospects for this one?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Not good, I would say. If it’s someone close to the president, that’s a tough guy to get.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Tom Rosenstiel, Larry Johnson, thank you both very much.

LARRY JOHNSON: Thank you, Terry.