06 Sep 2006

Was Valerie Plame a Covert Agent? Pt. 3

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David Corn, co-author of Hubris, the book which revealed Richard Armitage as Valerie Plame’s leaker, is spinning some more of the background detail in Nation article.

Corn gives this precis of Plame’s CIA career.

Valerie Plame was recruited into the CIA in 1985, straight out of Pennsylvania State University. After two years of training to be a covert case officer, she served a stint on the Greece desk, according to Fred Rustmann, a former CIA official who supervised her then. Next she was posted to Athens and posed as a State Department employee. Her job was to spot and recruit agents for the agency. In the early 1990s, she became what’s known as a nonofficial cover officer. NOCs are the most clandestine of the CIA’s frontline officers. They do not pretend to work for the US government; they do not have the protection of diplomatic immunity. They might claim to be a businessperson. She told people she was with an energy firm. Her main mission remained the same: to gather agents for the CIA.

In 1997 she returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD’s modest Iraq branch. But that summer–before 9/11–word came down from the brass: We’re ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.

We have posted some discussion of Valerie Plame’s career here. Corn unfortunately does not identify the location of Valerie Plame’s NOC activities.

It is clear that the purpose of the article is to shore up the central thesis of the Anti-Bush Intel Op, the thesis that Intelligence Community professionals told the Bush Administration that Saddam was innocent, there were no WMDs and an invasion of Iraq would be unjustified, but the wicked Neocons around Dick Cheney ignored the facts supplied by experts and professionals, and led the nation into a ruinous and unnecessary war.

By Corn’s account, rather than a bit player (just a camp follower member of the Enlightened Community of Pouting Spooks Opposing Bush), Valerie Plame was really one of the most important experts and professionals who knew better.

There was great pressure on the JTFI to deliver. Its primary target was Iraqi scientists. JTFI officers, under Wilson’s supervision, tracked down relatives, students and associates of Iraqi scientists–in America and abroad–looking for potential sources. They encouraged Iraqi émigrés to visit Iraq and put questions to relatives of interest to the CIA. The JTFI was also handling walk-ins around the world. Increasingly, Iraqi defectors were showing up at Western embassies claiming they had information on Saddam’s WMDs. JTFI officers traveled throughout the world to debrief them. Often it would take a JTFI officer only a few minutes to conclude someone was pulling a con. Yet every lead had to be checked.

“We knew nothing about what was going on in Iraq,” a CIA official recalled. “We were way behind the eight ball. We had to look under every rock.” Wilson, too, occasionally flew overseas to monitor operations. She also went to Jordan to work with Jordanian intelligence officials who had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes heading to Iraq that CIA analysts were claiming–wrongly–were for a nuclear weapons program. (The analysts rolled over the government’s top nuclear experts, who had concluded the tubes were not destined for a nuclear program.)

The JTFI found nothing. The few scientists it managed to reach insisted Saddam had no WMD programs. Task force officers sent reports detailing the denials into the CIA bureaucracy. The defectors were duds–fabricators and embellishers. (JTFI officials came to suspect that some had been sent their way by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that desired a US invasion of Iraq.) The results were frustrating for the officers. Were they not doing their job well enough–or did Saddam not have an arsenal of unconventional weapons? Valerie Wilson and other JTFI officers were almost too overwhelmed to consider the possibility that their small number of operations was, in a way, coming up with the correct answer: There was no intelligence to find on Saddam’s WMDs because the weapons did not exist.

Note the nice try by Corn, identifying one specific trip to Jordan to discuss aluminum tubes, and alluding darkly to very unspecific “occasional trips overseas” (very possibly merely to conferences, conventions, and liaison meetings with allies), intended to provide the essential predicate for the applicability of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

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