My stomach churns every time I view Karl Rove on the Fox News Channel. His unrelenting appearances bring back the subversive nature of the Valerie Plame (Wilson) leak and the backbreaking efforts the CIA used to place her, as a non-official-cover (NOC) agent abroad.
The movie "Fair Game" failed to fully disclose the dangers she faced in shielding Americans from weapons of mass destruction, nor did it reveal the harm Karl Rove caused America when he leaked Plame's deep cover identity to Time Magazine's reporter, Matt Cooper, in 2003. Let me explain. Unlike Hollywood depictions, not all CIA agents use State Department official cover and play the James Bond role, commonly seen wearing tuxedos at gambling tables and mingling with foreign dignitaries at cocktail and dinner parties.
Plame did not enjoy the protection of diplomatic immunity. If caught by foreign intelligence, she had no protection from prosecution under that country's laws. As an NOC agent, Plame didn't pretend to be a "fake" diplomat. She assumed deep cover and distanced herself from the luxurious State Department life that is complete with rich foods and top-flight martinis. Instead, she worked overseas under the cover of a company called Brewster-Jennings and Associates and spied on Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Syria. The moment Karl Rove outed her, this CIA front company was destroyed and Plame's cover was compromised.
She used a vast mosaic of lies and props to penetrate foreign organizations and to detect and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons from harming America. Neither friends, neighbors, family members nor her fiancé knew she worked for the CIA's enigmatic Non-Proliferation Center in Langley, Va., a cadre of analysts, technical experts and former field operatives.
In case a suspicious foreign intelligence service conducted a background check, she masqueraded as an "analyst" for a front company named Brewster-Jennings and Associates. To add credibility to the deception, it was listed on her Federal Election Commission forms when she made political contributions; registered on the Dun & Bradstreet database; was listed as her employer on her 1999 W-2 tax forms; and housed in a plush, 21-story office building in downtown Boston. Business cards, a phone number and post office box number complemented the subterfuge.
Gambling on her NOC deep cover smokescreen, Plame ventured overseas and infiltrated groups involved in smuggling nuclear weapons and the material used to create them. She attended trade shows and business conferences abroad where she interviewed and attempted to recruit foreign scientists and developed informal networks with engineers, secretaries, sales people and suppliers. She, "by coincidence", bumped into honest and sleazy characters alike, whom her CIA handlers targeted. She hoodwinked, sweet-talked, bribed and recruited "assets" (spies) in order to gain information about raw materials and hardware even remotely associated with the process of building weapons-grade nuclear material that could someday wreak devastation on Americans.
I talked with Harry Mason, who retired from the CIA in 1997. He is an expert in foreign and domestic intelligence, earning both the prestigious CIA Intelligence Medal of Merit and National Intelligence Medal Of Achievement awards. Mason believes that, although the leak of Plame's true identity didn't rise to a technical violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Act, CIA operatives must know they will be protected from traitors or political leakers — even if key presidential aides have to resign.
Under pressure, columnist Robert Novak divulged that Karl Rove told him Plame was a CIA operative. Thus, Plame's deep cover and overseas networks blew apart. Foreign intelligence services pored through passport databases and uncovered when she had set foot on their soil: her arrival dates, lodgings, dining spots, meetings attended and contacts. The lives of her acquaintances and the foreign assets she actually recruited were in peril.
Even today, other NOC agents working for the CIA's Non-Proliferation Center find it more difficult to recruit spies, who fear of their handlers may be outed by Washington politicians. Americans became "fair game" when Karl Rove donned a pin-striped suit and wrapped himself in the flag — while exposing a CIA covert operation.
Mason believes stronger criminal prosecution laws are needed for politicians and columnists who disclose covert identities. They harm America's national security and put the lives of intelligence agents and their foreign contacts at risk. Hopefully, all the CIA NOCs who assumed Plame's Brewster-Jennings and Associates deep cover made it back home safely.
I've learned to endure Karl Rove's appearances on the Fox News Channel, thanks to a nearby bottle of Maalox.
Robert Morton of Ashland is a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and writes about the U.S. intelligence community.