Was the release of the Kabul CIA station chief’s name a “worse case” than what happened to Valerie Plame? Or is the secrecy of a station chief in a foreign country a “wink-and-nod secret” where everyone knows the person’s true identity?
The former CIA operative, in Washington to promote her latest spy novel, was primed for the question Wednesday evening and immediately set the record straight. “It was colossally stupid,” Plame said at a panel organized by The Atlantic, “but it was a mistake.” It was not the White House that outed America’s top spy in Afghanistan, she said, but a military aide who included the CIA operative’s name in a list of people greeting President Obama in Kabul on Sunday. The president’s trip was undertaken with great secrecy, she said, and kept a surprise. “I’m sure everyone was breathless,” she added, noting that the White House had launched an investigation. “And they’ll find someone who’s really embarrassed at the end of it,” she predicted, “the crucial distinction being intent.”
In her case, she said, revealing her identity was “retribution for my husband…a warning shot.” Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, had questioned the evidence cited by the administration that Iraq was acquiring nuclear capability. What happened on Sunday, when the manifest of names was released to the press, was “just foolish,” Plame said. “The right is making a false equivalency that is misplaced.”
There’s always been a political divide over Plame’s position at the CIA, with defenders of the Bush administration saying she was not senior enough to make leaking her identity really matter. Analyst Brit Hume picked up that story line when he said on Fox News Sunday: “This was a woman, even though her status was supposed to be classified, she was working at a desk in Virginia; this is a guy on the front lines in Afghanistan. It’s a very different matter, and I think it’s fair to say much more serious, and I think the public will recognize that, and as I say, I think it feeds into this question whether these are people who can run anything.”
Appearing with Plame to discuss spy craft was David Ignatius, who covers national security for The Washington Post and is the author of nine novels. “Outing a station chief is bad however it happens,” he said. As for Plame's outing, he said, “I’m still shocked by it.”
Moderator Steve Clemons asked the two panelists for their reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelation to NBC’s Brian Williams that he “was trained as a spy.” The two said they had seen excerpts of the interview set to air Wednesday night. Ignatius said Snowden wanted to establish his brief as an intelligence officer, “that he wasn’t just a techie.” He said it was hard for him to see Snowden as a hero, that he signed an oath to keep the secrets, and there were a lot of things he could have done short of going public. “The CIA exists to break codes,” Ignatius said, and nobody knows how much damage Snowden has done in that area. On the other hand, he said, the Constitution couldn’t be clearer in its suspicion of government, “and I’m sure Thomas Jefferson is saying, ‘Good,’” that the NSA’s overreach became public.
Plame declined to go down what she called “the rabbit hole” of whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero but did say that if it weren’t for Snowden, she doubts that the debate today about reining in the NSA’s ability to collect mass data would have taken place.