Outed CIA officer was working on Iran, intelligence sources say
Published: February 13, 2006
The unmasking of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson by White House officials in 2003 caused significant damage to U.S. national security and its ability to counter nuclear proliferation abroad, RAW STORY has learned.
According to current and former intelligence officials, Plame Wilson, who worked on the clandestine side of the CIA in the Directorate of Operations as a non-official cover (NOC) officer, was part of an operation tracking distribution and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction technology to and from Iran.
Speaking under strict confidentiality, intelligence officials revealed heretofore unreported elements of Plame's work. Their accounts suggest that Plame's outing was more serious than has previously been reported and carries grave implications for U.S. national security and its ability to monitor Iran's burgeoning nuclear program.
While many have speculated that Plame was involved in monitoring the nuclear proliferation black market, specifically the proliferation activities of Pakistan's nuclear "father," A.Q. Khan, intelligence sources say that her team provided only minimal support in that area, focusing almost entirely on Iran.
Plame declined to comment through her husband, Joseph Wilson.
Valerie Plame first became a household name when her identity was disclosed by conservative columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. The column came only a week after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had written an op-ed for the New York Times asserting that White House officials twisted pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Her outing was seen as political retaliation for Wilson's criticism of the Administration's claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapons program.
Her case has drawn international attention and resulted in the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on five counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is leading the probe, is still pursuing Deputy Chief of Staff and Special Advisor to President Bush, Karl Rove. His investigation remains open.
Intelligence sources would not identify the specifics of Plame's work. They did, however, tell RAW STORY that her outing resulted in "severe" damage to her team and significantly hampered the CIA's ability to monitor nuclear proliferation.
Plame's team, they added, would have come in contact with A.Q. Khan's network in the course of her work on Iran.
While Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss has not submitted a formal damage assessment to Congressional oversight committees, the CIA's Directorate of Operations did conduct a serious and aggressive investigation, sources say.
Intelligence sources familiar with the damage assessment say that what is called a "counter intelligence assessment to agency operations" was conducted on the orders of the CIA's then-Deputy Director of the Directorate of Operations, James Pavitt.
Former CIA counterintelligence officer Larry Johnson believes that such an assessment would have had to be done for the CIA to have referred the case to the Justice Department.
"An exposure like that required an immediate operational and counter intelligence damage assessment," Johnson said. "That was done. The results were written up but not in a form for submission to anyone outside of CIA."
One former counterintelligence official described the CIA's reasons for not seeking Congressional assistance on the matter as follows: "[The CIA Leadership] made a conscious decision not to do a formal inquiry because they knew it might become public," the source said. "They referred it [to the Justice Department] instead because they believed a criminal investigation was needed."
The source described the findings of the assessment as showing "significant damage to operational equities."
Another counterintelligence official, also wishing to remain anonymous due to the nature of the subject matter, described "operational equities" as including both people and agency operations that involve the "cover mechanism," "front companies," and other CIA officers and assets.
Three intelligence officers confirmed that other CIA non-official cover officers were compromised, but did not indicate the number of people operating under non-official cover that were affected or the way in which these individuals were impaired. None of the sources would say whether there were American or foreign casualties as a result of the leak.
Several intelligence officials described the damage in terms of how long it would take for the agency to recover. According to their own assessment, the CIA would be impaired for up to "ten years" in its capacity to adequately monitor nuclear proliferation on the level of efficiency and accuracy it had prior to the White House leak of Plame Wilson's identity.
While Plame's work did not specifically focus on the A.Q. Khan ring, named after Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the network and its impact on nuclear proliferation and the region should not be minimized, primarily because the Khan network was the major supplier of WMD technology for Iran.
Dr. Khan instituted the proliferation market during the 1980s and supplied many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere with uranium enrichment technology, including Libya, Iran and North Korea. Enriched uranium is used to make weaponized nuclear devices.
The United States forced the Pakistan government to dismiss Khan for his proliferation activities in March of 2001, but he remains largely free and acts as an adviser to the Pakistani government.
According to intelligence expert John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, U.S. officials were not aware of the extent of the proliferation until around the time of Khan's dismissal.
"It slowly dawned on them that the collaboration between Pakistan, North Korea and Iran was an ongoing and serious problem," Pike said. "It was starting to sink in on them that it was one program doing business in three locations and that anything one of these countries had they all had."
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan became the United States' chief regional ally in the war on terror.
The revelation that Iran was the focal point of Plame's work raises new questions as to possible other motivating factors in the White House's decision to reveal the identity of a CIA officer working on tracking a WMD supply network to Iran, particularly when the very topic of Iran's possible WMD capability is of such concern to the Administration.