As we approach the week when Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury will undoubtedly issue indictments against White House officials, the seldom considered 1982 CIA shield law under which the Plame case was first launched deserves some attention. When Karl Rove, I. Lewis Libby, and possibly others decided to reveal the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, they clearly wanted to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for undermining administration claims that Saddam Hussein sought “yellowcake” uranium from Niger to build nuclear weapons. But by publicly ruining Plame’s undercover career, they were undoubtedly also sending a very personal message to CIA types and other insiders not to question Mr. Bush’s rush to war in Iraq.
As despicable as this White House treachery may have been, those of us who oppose it need to regain some lost perspective. Being bashed by Team Bush does not turn the Central Intelligence Agency into the home team or necessarily make Valerie Plame a modern-day Joan of Arc; nor should her outing stop journalists or anyone else from blowing the cover of her fellow agents when they are found engaging in kidnappings, torture, or attempts to overthrow democratically elected governments.
Among its many sins, the CIA has played a central role in the American torture machine. The agency created its “stress and duress” torture methods back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then passed the techniques to the Pentagon and client regimes around the world. Now, to complete the circle, CIA squads kidnap those they consider terrorist suspects and secretly disappear them into the prisons and torture chambers of countries like Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and Uzbekistan.
The antiseptic name for this outsourcing of torture is “extraordinary rendition,” and — to be fair — the CIA does not do it on its own say-so. “Renditions were called for, authorized and legally vetted not just by the N.S.C. [National Security Council] and the Justice Department, but also by the presidents — both Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush,” former CIA official Michael Scheuer wrote last March in an op-ed in the New York Times (scroll down). “I know this because, as head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden desk, I started the Qaeda detainee rendition program and ran it for 40 months.”
Author of the best-selling Imperial Hubris, Scheuer has become a leading critic of the war in Iraq, which he rightly sees as counterproductive in the fight against terrorists. Still a spook at heart, though, he rushes to defend the agency’s “snatch and grab” program, calling those of us who want to outlaw it either “woefully uninformed” or “horse’s asses.”
The program was “tremendously successful,” he told reporter Randy Hall of Cybercast News. “The amount of information we received that helped us better understand al Qaeda and formulate additional operations against them was invaluable, and the simple fact that, for example, we put one of bin Laden’s main procurers of weapons of mass destruction in prison is a good thing.”
Yes, jailing terrorists is good, but not by sidestepping formal charges, habeas corpus, independent judges, and fair trials — and certainly not by using torture. To trash civilization’s hard-won legal safeguards and let our secret police become judge, jury, and executioner is to do bin Laden’s work for him.
For CIA veterans, the ends too often justify the means, as long as the whole business does not become public (as it now has). The belief that an elite corps of CIA officers — and they alone — can keep self-corrupting means both under wraps and in check seems to be part of the job description.
The U.S. Senate appears to agree. In their admirable, bipartisan amendment to stop the American military from using torture, the Senators carefully refrained from extending the ban to cover the CIA, which continues to run its own secret prisons elsewhere. If torture is wrong for uniformed GIs, it should certainly be no less wrong for undercover agents.
But what does all this have to do with Valerie Plame?
I hope nothing at all. The CIA is a sizeable, complex bureaucracy, and only a relatively small number of its employees have anything to do with kidnapping, torture, and the like. The problem is that we know very little about what Ms. Plame did, and she has told us nothing about her views on anything at all. Her supporters — like former CIA and State Department officer Larry Johnson — tell us only that she worked undercover to protect Americans from nuclear proliferation.
As it happens, I was chief investigator on the BBC television team that first exposed the world’s worst nuclear proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. We pursued Khan’s story back in 1980, and many of our best leads came from intelligence operatives like Ms. Plame — and not just on the American side.
The information invariably came through “cut-outs,” or intermediaries, and we took great pains to check every lead for ourselves, knowing that intelligence agencies miss few opportunities to spread disinformation. After we broadcast our film and published a book called The Islamic Bomb, one of our cutouts passed word from the CIA that our exposé had set back the Pakistani nuclear program by three years.
I mention this to make clear how much I value the kind of intelligence work Ms. Plame is said to have done. But there’s a dark side to CIA work that none of us should ignore. A significant part of the Agency’s recent efforts against proliferation has rightly focused on stopping terrorists from getting nuclear materials. Given the history of the last few years, there can be little doubt that the Agency would be sorely tempted to ship off any credible suspects to be interrogated under torture in some foreign hellhole. As a result, we need to take a long, hard look at anyone who has worked in CIA covert operations, especially in the area of nuclear proliferation.
None of this should weaken our opposition to the way Team Bush has treated Ms. Plame. But eternal suspicion of our legal, military, and intelligence professionals is one of the prices we will increasingly have to pay if our government continues to insist on relying on torture.
Enter Philip Agee
The current scandal over Plame’s outing raises an even tougher issue for those of us who work as journalists. Do we have any obligation to refrain from publishing the identity of undercover CIA operatives engaged in such activities? Or, when we write about their dirty work, do we tell the whole story without leaving out the leading characters?
Back in 1975, former CIA officer Philip Agee published Inside the Company: CIA Diary, an international best seller in which he revealed what the CIA was doing, especially in Latin America where he had worked. He also named every CIA officer he knew — an indication of just how complete a break he had made with the Agency. The contrast with Michael Scheuer or Valerie Plame is obvious.
It was hardly surprisingly, then, that Agee’s former comrades saw what he had done as an utter betrayal, much as old lefties viewed the staged performances of those who named names for Senator Joseph McCarthy and other Congressional investigators. (The difference between the two situations was immense, of course, as Agee made his decision to go public without coercion and solely for reasons of conscience.)
A young idealist with a Jesuit education, he had believed all the apple-pie myths of American democracy and had joined the CIA to do what he thought was right. After twelve years “inside the Company,” he ended up loathing the dirty work he had seen and did, and so tried to disrupt the Agency’s operations by blowing the cover of its operatives. This clearly put CIA officers at increased risk, but — so he felt — the more time they had to spend ensuring their own safety, the less time they would have to put other people elsewhere on Earth at risk.
Several journalists in London at the time — and I was one of the most active — joined Agee in publishing the names of large numbers of CIA officers in dozens of countries, often as lead stories in widely read newspapers and magazines. Contrary to media accounts, however, Agee did not provide the names, as he had already named everyone he knew. The identifications came from the U.S. government’s Foreign Service Lists and its yearly Biographic Registers, using a time-consuming method that former State Department officer John Marks described in the November 1974 Washington Monthly. Marks called his method “How to Spot a Spook.”
No midnight mail drops from the Soviet KGB. No whispered messages from some Cuban Mata Hari. Just the hard slog of journalistic investigation.
Then came the crisis. Two days before Christmas in 1975, assassins shot and killed Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens. The agency quickly used the killing to escalate its attacks on Agee, even though he had never known Welch or identified him in his book (or anywhere else). No doubt Agee would have, but he played no part in the outing, as the CIA knew.
His only contact was peripheral. In January 1975, the American magazine CounterSpy identified Welch as the CIA station chief in Lima, and also carried an essay by Agee. But the magazine, which was funded by author Norman Mailer and his Organizing Committee for a Fifth Estate, had found Welch’s identity in a Peruvian journal and then confirmed it with the spook-spotting techniques from the Washington Monthly.
Welch’s name also appeared in the English-language Athens News in November 1975, along with nine other CIA officers working in Greece. Many months later, the press revealed that the killers had stalked Welch even before the list appeared. The CIA had reportedly warned him not to move into the house which the stalkers knew as the CIA chief’s residence. For whatever reason, Welch refused to heed the warning.
But Agee’s vindication came nearly twenty years later when former First Lady Barbara Bush repeated the old libel that he had played a role in Welch’s death in her memoirs. Agee sued, and Mrs. Bush was forced to remove the passage from the paperback edition of the book. She also had to send him a letter of apology, acknowledging that her accusation had been false.
Now, with the outing of Valerie Plame, many pundits are again blaming Agee for revealing Welch’s identity. No doubt, they will check the facts and send their apologies as well.
The CIA Fights Back
In the meantime, the CIA continued to do to Agee far worse than Team Bush has done to Valerie Plame, using his notoriety to turn the spotlight away from the dirty work he was protesting. First they persuaded Britain to deport him; then they convinced France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany to keep him on the run. Though Germany later relented and let him live there, none of the countries ever presented a public case with specific charges that Agee could contest.
Then, in 1982, the CIA and its former director George Bush, who was by then Vice President, persuaded Congress to pass the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, one of several laws that the current Bush Administration appears to have broken in outing Valerie Plame. Often called “the Anti-Agee Act,” the law targeted those with authorized access to classified information, past or present. It also criminalized journalists and others who showed “a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents.”
Though poorly drafted and hard (but not impossible) for prosecutors to use, the “Anti-Agee law” acts as a gag on whistleblowers, journalists, scholars, and activists who might want to expose covert wrongdoing. Worse, in the wake of the Plame outing, several members of Congress want to extend the law, creating even more of a British-style Official Secrets Act.
Whatever Karl Rove or Lewis Libby did to reveal Plame’s identity, they should be punished, as should the President and Vice President they serve. But let’s not jump overboard. Making a bad law worse would prove exceedingly shortsighted, especially for anyone who cherishes a free press or fears the unchecked power of the FBI, the CIA, and the Pentagon.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. During that time, he was a close friend and colleague of Philip Agee. Weissman now lives and works in France, where for the last two years he wrote regularly for Truthout.org.
Copyright 2005 Steve Weissman
This article first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.