Plame Case: The Hill Gets Into the Act

  • Share
  • Read Later

With the Senate making noises about possibly investigating the Valerie Plame case, some in the House are getting into the act. The Senior House Intelligence Committee Democrat has asked the State Department to hand over copies of a memo that has become a hot potato in the criminal investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA officer said to have been operating under cover. The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, noted in her request that the Senate Intelligence committee already had copies of the memo, prepared by the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).

The panel is seeking two similar versions of the memo, ordered up by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and, before him, another senior official, in 2003. The documents reportedly detailed former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's 2002 CIA-sponsored trip to Niger to investigate a report that Saddam Hussein was trying to procure nuclear material from Niger. The memo noted Plame, Wilson's wife had a role in suggesting to other CIA officials that her husband would be a good person to send to Niger because of his experience on the continent as a career foreign service officer.

Which senior Administration officials saw and discussed that memo among themselves is now reportedly a key element of the high-stakes investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into whether Plame's identity was illegally leaked or whether anyone has interfered with Fitzgerald's probe. Some Republicans have questioned whether Plame—who had in recent years worked out of CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters—was really undercover. But a U.S. official told TIME that the CIA still considered her to be under covert status, under a 1982 covert agents protection law, at the time her identity was disclosed in a July 14, 2003, article by columnist Robert Novak.

Though the State Department had turned the memos over to Senate investigators for a probe of pre-war Iraq intelligence, it's unclear whether State will honor the House request. Fitzgerald's ongoing investigation could complicate matters. Will Taft IV, a former State Department legal adviser, says he would likely have asked Fitzgerald's office whether handing over the memo would interfere with the investigation before ruling on the request. "In a delicate situation like this, it would be a normal practice to coordinate with Justice, because they're the sort of arbiters of how you react in a case where there's a criminal investigation going on."

Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn declined comment. "I'm not going to respond publicly to whether or not the special counsel would object or not object to the release of any document," he said. A State Department spokesperson also declined comment.

Beyond Fitzgerald's position on the matter, it was not immediately clear why Harman made the request alone, without the formal endorsement of panel chairman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan. "We have no comment at this time," Harman's communications director, Tom Reynolds, said by email. A Hokestra spokesman signaled that any request solely by the minority Democrats would not be given the panel's full weight. "No official committee request has been made," said Jamal Ware. It was unclear whether this would influence the State response.

The request comes as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas is planning hearings on the cover created to allow key U.S. intelligence operatives to function. Roberts has said he will look into the leak of Plame's identity as part of those hearings. Roberts said last week that the hearings would be open to the public, in part, and that the star witness would be Plame herself. "We intend to have a hearing," Roberts told TIME, "And I think it would be a good idea to visit with her."

But Democrats doubt the Republican's sincerity and suspect Roberts is just going through the motions. Asked if he thinks there will be hearings, Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, says, "I think it's unlikely. Roberts still hasn't delivered on his promise to look into the administration's manipulation of the intelligence leading to the war in Iraq." And even if there are hearings, it's not clear if Plame, who still works for the CIA, will in fact testify. Her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, says, "She would have to go through her employer for that."

Meanwhile, as the Plame case continues in both the legal and political arenas, another minor wrinkle emerged that may further draw partisan lines. The Wilsons last year attended an anti-Bush fundraising concert featuring Bruce Springsteen last fall. Federal Election Commission records show the tab: $372 last to America Coming Together, a political committee that worked hard to oppose President Bush's re-election, for two floor seats. "It was great," Joe Wilson said, returning a call for his wife. "Remember, this was a year and a half after the Administration compromised the identity of my wife, and it was no great secret that I was doing my bit to educate the American public as to the flaws in the Bush Administration's foreign policy." FEC records show that Plame, who made the donation under her married name—Valerie Wilson—listed her occupation as "retired," though she remains a CIA employee. Wilson said his wife "doesn't recall listing herself as retired."