The Wilson Gambit

Senate Democrats employed a stealthy maneuver the other day, to reinforce their demand into an affair they like to call "Plamegate." They are right that an investigation is required. But they have gotten the subject matter wrong.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the real scandal is the genesis, not the unmasking, of an irregular and highly questionable mission: "the Wilson Gambit." It is time for serious examination, equipped with the tools of subpoena and testimony under oath, into the genesis and conduct of this anomalous operation.

The mainstream media, of course, is entirely uninterested in determining why the Wilson Gambit was undertaken. Once upon a time, the New York Times and the rest of the American liberal establishment worried about CIA dirty tricks aimed at influencing domestic politics. The more effervescent leftists fulminated about a 'secret government' and muttered darkly about a threat to democracy itself, emanating from Langley.

How times (and The Times) have changed! Today, the darlings of the American left and its house organ are a CIA employee and her husband, who set up and implemented a highly irregular operation which, if not explicitly designed to do so, has had the net effect of discrediting an elected leader and his foreign policy. The Wilson Gambit was a stealth operation undertaken outside normal procedures and supervision, used as a political weapon, complete with lies spread by a cooperative media establishment interested in bringing down a leader and his policies which they detest.

Former Senator Zell Miller, a man of enormous stature, has done the nation a great service in publicly raising questions about the intent behind about the Wilson Gambit.

It's like a spy thriller. Institutional rivalries and political loyalties have fostered an intelligence officer's resentment against the government. Suddenly, an opportunity appears for the agent to undercut the national leadership. A vital question of intelligence forms the core justification for controversial military actions by the current leaders. If this agent can get in the middle of that question, distort that information and make it public, the agent might foster regime change in the upcoming election.

But the rules on agents are clear. They can't purposely distort gathered intelligence, go public with secret information or use their position or information to manipulate domestic elections or matters without risking their job or jail.

But their spouse can!

Senator Miller has substantial circumstantial evidence on his side when he infers that the Plame/Wilson imbroglio may have been just such a set up. The list of irregularities surrounding the Wilson Gambit is formidable. Here are just a few:

Why didn't the Agency require Wilson to sign a non disclosure agreement respecting his trip to Niger?

A good question, indeed, because this stunning lapse allowed him to make false charges about it, to which the Administration could offer only a limited, ineffective response  without first declassifying information. I don't know the answer to the question, but it certainly does suggest that those who believe this jaunt was a set up against the Administration have more than a little basis for that belief. Congress should make this question a prominent part of its inquiries into the matter.

Why did they send him at all?

The U.S. Ambassador to Niger said it was unnecessary and, as we know, Cheney didn't ask for this mission, despite Wilson's intimations to the contrary.

Who determined the specific questions to be asked in Niger?

The questions Wilson posed were essentially meaningless. He asked the same questions General Fulford had just asked. And those questions (drafted by the CIA) were hardly intended to elicit meaningful information. Moreover, Fulford had asked current officials and Wilson did not. The inquiries never were about whether the Nigerien officials had been approached by any countries to purchase uranium. The Ambassador to Niger noted "we raised the issue in more general terms rather than specifics."  Even with these limitations, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence notes, Wilson learned there had been a visit by a trade delegation from Iraq.

And since Niger's other major export is cow peas, the Commission felt his report strengthened, rather than undercut the British report that Iraq had been attempting to buy yellowcake in Africa.:

On February 24, 2002, the U.S. Embassy in Niamey disseminated a cable When the Iraq—Niger uranium reporting surfaced in early February, Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick decided to ask General Fulford to use the previously scheduled meeting to raise the uranium issue with Nigerien officials. Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick prepared talking points for General Fulford to use during his visit and the CIA coordinated on the talking points.

At the meeting, Nigerien President Tandja assured the ambassador and General Fulford that Niger's goal was to keep its uranium "in safe hands" He [redacted]. In the comment section of the cable, the embassy noted that in the past, "previous Nigerien governments have suggested that the best way the [U.S. government] could keep Niger's uranium from the wrong hands" was for the U.S. to purchase it. Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick told Committee staff that during her meetings with Nigerien officials, she never asked whether the officials had been approached by any countries to purchase uranium. She said, "we raised the issue in more general terms rather than specifics."  

On February 26, 2002, the former ambassador arrived in Niger. He told Committee staff that he first met with Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick to discuss his upcoming meetings. Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick asked him not to meet with current Nigerien officials because she believed it might complicate her continuing diplomatic efforts with them on the uranium issue. The former ambassador agreed to restrict his meetings to former officials and the private sector.

The former ambassador told Committee staff that he met with the former Nigerien Prime Minister, the former Minister of Mines and Energy, and other business contacts. At the end of his visit, he debriefed Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick [redacted], Chad. He told Committee staff that he had told both U.S. officials he thought there was "nothing to the story." Ambassador Owens—Kirkpatrick told Committee staff she recalled the former ambassador saying "he had reached the same conclusions that the embassy had reached, that it was highly unlikely that anything was going on."

Why did the Agency pay only his expenses?

If Wilson's services were required — and they certainly appear to me not to have been —  why was he only reimbursed for his expenses? I think it not impossible (having worked for the government myself) that doing so would avoid having to go through the bureaucracy, having to justify the trip, and leaving a paper trail in the personnel and accounting offices. Paying only his expenses, which might be hidden in the discretionary expenses of such an operation, would have further disguised the Mission from superior officials in the Agency.

Indeed, when Wilson leveled his charges, George Tenet seemed to have been unprepared immediately to respond, as if he had no knowledge of the Mission. And this gave Wilson more time to spread his lies unchecked by a quick refutation.

Why have his report remain oral?

This also seems inexplicable to me and certainly adds to my suspicions that the Mission was designed to minimize its paper trial. If minimizing a paper trail was important, for what purpose? To sandbag the Administration remains after all this time my best guess.

Why refer this to Department of Justice before completing an in—house inquiry?

Indeed, why refer it at all, since it doesn't appear she was covert and the Mission itself ceased to be a secret once Wilson started talking about it in May of 2003? It is my understanding that, generally, a full in— house assessment is made before a decision to refer the matter outside for investigation, and to the best of my knowledge that wasn't done here.  Again, if my factual predicate is right, what other conclusion but a deliberate plot to tie up key Administration officials could there be?

Who leaked the referral letter from the CIA to the DoJ requesting an investigation of the leak? And why was this information, itself apparently classified, leaked?

Andrea Mitchell (who works for Tim Russert, a key witness in the Libby case) first reported the transmittal letter. She also has publicly  admitted that she knew of Plame's employment with the agency before Novak's "outing" of Plame. From whom did she get this classified information? Was it from the CIA or the DoJ? And why was this leaked so quickly except to maximize the damage to the Administration?

Why did the Agency not do more to prevent the publication of the Plame story by Novak after it knew he intended to publish it?

As Tom Maguire notes, re the latest leak about the Al Qaeda prisons, the CIA called the editor of the Washington Post and asked that certain details not be published for national security reasons and the paper complied with that request. There's a great deal more than who Novak's sources were that we don't know. But at the moment it appears to me that Miller's proposed Plame Rule, applying the same limits to piblic comments by spouses of CIA employees as to employees themselves, is both warranted and more than two years overdue.

Congress needs to hold hearings promptly.

Clarice Feldman is an attorney in Washington, DC.