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Context of 'January 31, 2007: Time Columnist: Leakers Deserve the Same Protection as Reporters'

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Newsday logo.Newsday logo. [Source: Sobel Media]Newsday reports on the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson by a news columnist based on information leaked by two administration sources (see July 14, 2003). In an article titled “Columnist Blows CIA Agent’s Cover,” reporters Timothy Phelps and Knut Royce note that CIA officials confirm that Plame Wilson “works at the agency on weapons of mass destruction issues in an undercover capacity—at least she was undercover until last week when she was named by columnist Robert Novak.” (Phelps and Royce 7/22/2003) It will later be determined that Royce and Phelps’s source is probably a single official, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow (see 5:25 p.m. June 10, 2003, 5:27 p.m. June 11, 2003, (July 11, 2003), and Before July 14, 2003). (United States District Court for the District of Columbia 9/27/2004 pdf file) Shortly thereafter, other reporters learn that Plame Wilson was not only an undercover agent, but had what is known as NOC—“nonofficial cover” status (see Fall 1992 - 1996). NOC agents usually operate overseas, often using false identities and job descriptions. NOCs do not have diplomatic protection and thusly are vulnerable to capture, imprisonment, and even murder without official reprisals or even acknowledgement from the US. Vanity Fair reporter Vicky Ward will write in January 2004: “A NOC’s only real defense is his or her cover, which can take years to build. Because of this vulnerability, a NOC’s identity is considered within the CIA to be, as former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack has put it, ‘the holiest of holies.’” (Ward 1/2004) Plame Wilson’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, refuses to confirm his wife’s covert CIA status, but says that her outing is part of a concerted effort to attack critics of the administration’s intelligence failures (see July 21, 2003). Wilson recently revealed that the administration’s claims that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger were false (see July 6, 2003). Current and former CIA officials are outraged at Novak’s column, and the apparent leak from the administration. Former CIA Near East division chief Frank Anderson says, “When it gets to the point of an administration official acting to do career damage, and possibly actually endanger someone, that’s mean, that’s petty, it’s irresponsible, and it ought to be sanctioned.” A current intelligence official says that blowing Plame Wilson’s cover puts everyone she ever dealt with as an undercover CIA operative at risk. Her husband agrees: “If what the two senior administration officials said is true, they will have compromised an entire career of networks, relationships, and operations.” Furthermore, if true, “this White House has taken an asset out of the” weapons of mass destruction fight, “not to mention putting at risk any contacts she might have had where the services are hostile.” (Phelps and Royce 7/22/2003) In 2007, Plame Wilson will reflect: “Not only was it very rare for the agency to validate that an officer was undercover, no matter what the circumstances, but no one from the agency had told me that my undercover status would be confirmed. It would have been nice to at least get a heads-up from someone at work.” (Wilson 2007, pp. 147)

Jim Marcinkowski (left) and Larry Johnson.Jim Marcinkowski (left) and Larry Johnson. [Source: CNN]Former CIA case officer Jim Marcinkowski, a former classmate of outed CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson (see Fall 1985), is outraged by the revelation of Plame Wilson’s CIA status and the allegations that the leak of her identity is not a crime (see July 14, 2003 and September 29, 2003). Another former classmate of Plame Wilson’s, former CIA agent Larry Johnson, says: “[W]hat I keep seeing in the newspaper is the spin and leak that this is no big deal. And that’s got to stop.… The problem with this is a lot of the damage that has occurred is not going to be seen. It can’t be photographed. We can’t bring the bodies out because in some cases it’s going to involve protecting sources and methods. And it’s important to keep this before the American people. This was a betrayal of national security.” Marcinkowski concurs: “This is an unprecedented act. This has never been done by the United States government before. The exposure of an undercover intelligence officer by the US government is unprecedented. It’s not the usual leak from Washington. The leak a week scenario is not at play here. This is a very, very serious event.” Plame Wilson was an NOC, or nonofficial cover officer (see Fall 1992 - 1996). “It was the most dangerous assignment you could take. It takes a special sort of person,” says Marcinkowski, who is now a prosecutor in Michigan. Former CIA official Kenneth Pollack agrees, describing an NOC’s identity as the “holiest of holies.” Many believe that the outrage among the rank and file of CIA agents and officials at Plame Wilson’s outing was so strong that CIA Director George Tenet had little choice but to recommend that the Justice Department investigate the leak (see September 16, 2003). Marcinkowski says: “In this particular case, it was so far over the line, I think myself and a lot of us were truly outraged that the government would do this.… I mean, we kept our mouths closed since 1985, when we joined.” Johnson, noting that both he and Marcinkowski are registered Republicans, says: “As a Republican, I think we need to be consistent on this. It doesn’t matter who did it, it didn’t matter which party was involved. This isn’t about partisan politics. This is about protecting national security and national security assets and in this case there has been a betrayal, not only of the CIA officers there, but really a betrayal of those of us who have kept the secrets over the years on this point.” (Borger 10/22/2003; CNN 10/24/2003)

Three former CIA agents, Brent Cavan, Jim Marcinkowski, and Larry Johnson, and one current CIA official who declines to be identified, prepare a joint statement for the Senate Intelligence Committee. Because of problems with travel arrangements, Marcinkowski appears alone.
'You Are a Traitor and You Are Our Enemy' - In a closed session, Marcinkowski delivers their statement, which reads in part: “We acknowledge our obligation to protect each other and the intelligence community and the information we used to do our jobs. We are speaking out because someone in the Bush administration seemingly does not understand this, although they signed the same oaths of allegiance and confidentiality that we did. Many of us have moved on into the private sector, where this agency aspect of our lives means little, but we have not forgotten our initial oaths to support the Constitution, our government, and to protect the secrets we learned and to protect each other. We still have friends who serve. We protect them literally by keeping our mouths shut unless we are speaking amongst ourselves. We understand what this bond or the lack of it means. Clearly some in the Bush administration do not understand the requirement to protect and shield national security assets. Based on published information we can only conclude that partisan politics by people in the Bush administration overrode the moral and legal obligations to protect clandestine officers and security assets. Beyond supporting Mrs. Wilson with our moral support and prayers we want to send a clear message to the political operatives responsible for this. You are a traitor and you are our enemy. You should lose your job and probably should go to jail for blowing the cover of a clandestine intelligence officer. You have set a sickening precedent. You have warned all US intelligence officers that you may be compromised if you are providing information the White House does not like.… Politicians must not politicize the intelligence community. President Bush has been a decisive leader in the war on terrorism, at least initially. What about decisiveness now? Where is the accountability he promised us in the wake of Clinton administration scandals? We find it hard to believe the president lacks the wherewithal to get to bottom of this travesty. It is up to the president to restore the bonds of trust with the intelligence community that have been shattered by this tawdry incident.”
Questions from Senators - One committee member, Chuck Hagel (R-NE), asks Marcinkowski if he believes the White House can investigate itself, a reference to the White House’s promise to conduct a thorough internal investigation (see March 16, 2007). Marcinkowski replies that if the attorney general is trying to intimidate federal judges, it is unlikely that he can be trusted to conduct such an investigation. Another senator, Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO), challenges Marcinkowski, demanding that he cease attacking “my friend” Attorney General John Ashcroft. According to Marcinkowski’s later recollection, “A total food fight ensued,” with committee member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) accusing Bond of trying to intimidate a witness.
Immediate Classification - A few minutes after the hearing concludes, Marcinkowski learns that the entire hearing has been declared secret by committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS). Marcinkowski, who is scheduled to testify again before a Democrats-only hearing the next day, is incensed. He believes that Roberts deliberately scheduled the full committee hearing to come before the Democratic hearing, so he can classify Marcinkowski’s testimony and prevent him from testifying publicly in support of Plame Wilson. Marcinkowski decides to appear before the Democratic hearing anyway. He calls a Democratic staffer and says, “You call Roberts’s office and you tell him I said that he can go straight to hell.” Marcinkowski anticipates being arrested as soon as his testimony before the Democratic committee members, not knowing that Roberts has no authority to classify anything.
Democratic Hearing - Marcinkowski, joined by Johnson and former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro, testifies before the committee’s Democrats. The last question is from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), who has this question whispered to him by ranking member John D. Rockefeller (D-WV). Rockefeller says: “I would like to ask Mr. Marcinkowski, who is an attorney, one more question. Do you think the White House can investigate itself?” After the hearing, Rockefeller grabs Marcinkowski’s hand and asks, “What did you think of the food fight yesterday?” (Cavan et al. 7/18/2005; Wilson 2007, pp. 382-386)

An artist’s sketch of some of the proceedings in the Libby trial.An artist’s sketch of some of the proceedings in the Libby trial. [Source: Art Lien / Court Artist (.com)]A jury of nine men and three women, along with four alternates, is seated in the Lewis Libby perjury and obstruction trial, selected from an original jury pool of 60 prospects. The jury seating takes days longer than expected, in part because the Libby defense team works to block any jurors who state any disapproval of the Bush administration or its conduct of the Iraq war. Jurors are asked if they had ever applied for a job at the CIA, or know anyone who works for the agency. Some are asked if they know the meaning of the word “covert.” One prospective juror says: “A lot of what the CIA does is overtly covert.… My father was a Methodist minister. He didn’t run in those circles.” US District Judge Reggie Walton asks the potential jurors: “Mr. Libby is the former chief of staff and national security adviser of Vice President Cheney. Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?” Defense lawyer Theodore Wells tells one prospective juror, “There is a real possibility Vice President Cheney will be sitting in that chair,” indicating the witness stand. One potential juror responds, “I don’t have the highest opinion of him.” He continues that he has read a lot about the CIA leak case on Internet blogs and in the newspaper, and calls it “standard Washington politics.” After one potential juror tells the court that she voted for President Bush, Fitzgerald tells Walton that he is concerned the questions are getting too political. In the absence of the jurors, Fitzgerald says, “Now we’re finding out how people voted.” Defense lawyers say that because they intend to call Cheney to testify on Libby’s behalf (see December 19, 2006), they don’t want jurors who already dislike or distrust Cheney. (Ryan 1/16/2007; Washington Post 7/3/2007; BBC 7/3/2007) Counsel’s opening statements take place a week after the jury members begin taking their places (see January 23, 2007 and January 23, 2007).

In a column ironically titled “Free Scooter Libby!” Time columnist Michael Kinsley notes the damage done to the idea of the “anonymous source” in the Plame Wilson investigation and the Libby perjury trial (see January 16-23, 2007). Leaks from anonymous sources are widely believed to be necessary to keep government honest, Kinsley notes, and journalists must not be asked to testify as to those sources. Kinsley goes on to note that in this case, instead of heroic whistleblowers, reporters such as the New York Times’s Judith Miller were protecting White House officials trying to spin the public. And, he continues, it is an established crime to blow the undercover status of a CIA officer such as Valerie Plame Wilson (see July 21, 2003, October 22-24, 2003, and October 23-24, 2003). Most journalists were somberly critical of Miller’s forced testimony, and, in contrast, are writing about the Libby trial in a “jaunty to the point of slapstick” manner. But ‘[i]t takes two” to “create a leak,” a government official on one end and a reporter on the other. Kinsley calls the Miller/Libby leak “a bad leak.” Plame Wilson’s covert status “should have stayed secret.” He concludes: “If leaks are vital to the freedom of the press, then surely both of the people needed to create a leak—the reporter and the source—deserve protection. If Judy Miller is a martyr of press freedom, then so is Scooter Libby.” (Kinsley 1/31/2007)

Author and media observer Eric Boehlert, writing for the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters, criticizes the majority of mainstream news reporters and publications for failing to report aggressively and even accurately on the Plame Wilson leak investigation. Boehlert writes that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald “has consistently shown more interest—and determination—in uncovering the facts of the Plame scandal than most Beltway journalists, including the often somnambulant DC newsroom of the New York Times. Indeed, for long stretches, the special counsel easily supplanted the timid DC press corps and become the fact-finder of record for the Plame story. It was Fitzgerald and his team of G-men—not journalists—who were running down leads, asking tough questions, and, in the end, helping inform the American people about possible criminal activity inside the White House.” While Fitzgerald had subpoena power, Boehlert admits, reporters often had inside information that they consistently failed to reveal, instead “dutifully keeping their heads down and doing their best to make sure the details never got out about the White House’s obsession with discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV by outing his undercover CIA wife, Valerie Plame” Wilson. Boehlert writes that if not for Fitzgerald’s dogged investigation, the entire leak story would have “simply faded into oblivion like so many other disturbing suggestions of Bush administration misdeeds. And it would have faded away because lots of high-profile journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and NBC wanted it to.”
'Watergate in Reverse' - “In a sense, it was Watergate in reverse,” Boehlert writes. “Instead of digging for the truth, lots of journalists tried to bury it. The sad fact remains the press was deeply involved in the cover-up, as journalists reported White House denials regarding the Plame leak despite the fact scores of them received the leak and knew the White House was spreading rampant misinformation about an unfolding criminal case.”
Going Along to Avoid Angering White House - Boehlert believes that in the early days of the investigation, most Washington reporters agreed with President Bush, who said that it was unlikely the leaker’s identity would ever be unearthed (see October 7, 2003). Historically, leak investigations rarely produced the leaker. “So if the leakers weren’t going to be found out, what was the point of reporters going public with their information and angering a then-popular White House that had already established a habit for making life professionally unpleasant for reporters who pressed too hard?” Boehlert asks. Now, of course, the press is pursuing the Libby trial for all it’s worth.
Early Instances of Misleading - Boehlert notes a number of instances where media figures either deliberately concealed information they had about who leaked Plame Wilson’s name, or were transparently disingenuous about speculating on the leaker’s identity. ABC reported in July 2005 that “it’s been unknown who told reporters the identity of Valerie Plame” for two years, an assertion Boehlert calls “silly” (see October 3, 2003). The following Washington journalists all had inside information to one extent or another about the case long before the summer of 2005: Robert Novak (see July 8, 2003), Tim Russert (see August 7, 2004), Andrea Mitchell (see July 20, 2003 and July 21, 2003), David Gregory (see 8:00 a.m. July 11, 2003), Chris Matthews (see July 21, 2003), Matthew Cooper (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003), Michael Duffy (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003), John Dickerson (see February 7, 2006), Viveca Novak (see March 1, 2004), Judith Miller (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003), and Bob Woodward (see June 13, 2003). Had they come forward with the information they had, the identity of the various White House leakers would have been revealed much sooner. “[B]ut none of them did,” Boehlert writes. “Instead, at times there was an unspoken race away from the Bush scandal, a collective retreat that’s likely unprecedented in modern-day Beltway journalism.”
Cheerleading for Bush - Many journalists without inside information were openly cheering for the Bush administration and against the investigation, Boehlert contends. They included the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof (see October 1, 2003 and October 25, 2005), Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (see October 1, 2003 and November 7, 2005), Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (see October 13, 2005 and January 30, 2007), fellow Post columnist Michael Kinsley (see October 28, 2005 and January 31, 2007), Slate editor Jacob Weisberg (see October 18, 2005), and Post columnist David Broder (see July 10, 2005 and September 7, 2006). Author and liberal blogger Marcy Wheeler, in her book on the Plame affair entitled Anatomy of Deceit, wrote that in her view, the media was attempting to “mak[e] the case that the press should retain exclusive judgment on the behavior of politicians, with no role for the courts.”
Fighting to Stay Quiet during the Election Campaign - Many journalists tried, and succeeded, to keep the story quiet during the 2004 presidential election campaign. Matthew Cooper refused to testify before Fitzgerald’s grand jury until mid-2005, when he asked for and was granted a waiver from Karl Rove to reveal him as the source of his information that Plame Wilson was a CIA agent (see July 13, 2005). Boehlert notes that Cooper’s bosses at Time decided to fight the subpoena in part because they “were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year” (see July 6, 2005).
Russert, NBC Withheld Information from Public - Russert also withheld information from Fitzgerald, and the American public, until well after the November 2004 election. Boehlert notes that Russert “enjoyed a very close working relationship with Libby’s boss, Cheney,” and “chose to remain silent regarding central facts.” Russert could have revealed that in the summer of 2004, he had told Fitzgerald of his conversation with Libby during the summer of 2003 (see August 7, 2004). Libby had perjured himself by telling Fitzgerald that Russert had told him of Plame Wilson’s CIA status, when in reality, the reverse was true (see March 24, 2004). Instead, Russert testified that he and Libby never discussed Plame Wilson’s identity during that conversation, or at any other time. But neither Russert nor his employer, NBC News, admitted that to the public, instead merely saying that Libby did not reveal Plame Wilson’s identity to Russert (see August 7, 2004). Boehlert writes, “But why, in the name of transparency, didn’t the network issue a statement that made clear Russert and Libby never even discussed Plame?”
Woodward's Involvement - Washington Post editor Bob Woodward, an icon of investigative reporting (see June 15, 1974), told various television audiences that Fitzgerald’s investigation was “disgraceful” and called Fitzgerald a “junkyard prosecutor” (see October 27, 2005), and said the leak had not harmed the CIA (see July 14, 2003, July 21, 2003, September 27, 2003, October 3, 2003, October 22-24, 2003, and October 23-24, 2003). Woodward predicted that when “all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great” (see July 7, 2005). While Woodward was disparaging the investigation (see July 11, 2005, July 17, 2005, and October 28, 2005), he was failing to reveal that he himself had been the recipient of a leak about Plame Wilson’s identity years before (see June 13, 2003, June 23, 2003, and June 27, 2003), which, Boehlert notes, “meant Woodward, the former sleuth, had been sitting been sitting on a sizeable scoop for more than two years.” Boehlert continues: “If at any point prior to the Libby indictments Woodward had come forward with his information, it would have been politically devastating for the White House. Instead, Woodward remained mum about the facts while publicly mocking Fitzgerald’s investigation.”
Conclusion - Boehlert concludes: “Regardless of the outcome from the Libby perjury case, the trial itself will be remembered for pulling back the curtain on the Bush White House as it frantically tried to cover up its intentional effort to mislead the nation to war. Sadly, the trial will also serve as a touchstone for how the Beltway press corps completely lost its way during the Bush years and became afraid of the facts—and the consequences of reporting them.” (Boehlert 2/6/2007)


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