Agents See Dangerous Precedent in Plame's Outing

The verdict in the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby is attracting attention among Valerie Plame's former colleagues at the CIA.

Among intelligence insiders, there's concern that nearly four years after the CIA called for an investigation into the leak of Plame's name to reporters, no one has been charged for what they see as an unpardonable crime: outing an undercover operative.

Valerie Plame belonged to that secretive circle of spies who spend most of their careers — in some cases, their whole lives — operating undercover. Within that circle, there appears to be mostly relief at the verdict. Larry Johnson, who was in Plame's CIA class and has remained a close friend, calls it "wonderful news."

Johnson adds, "I think there was a general perception that this government could get away with anything. With this verdict, the answer is, 'No it can't.'" Johnson sees the decision as a moment of vindication for his friend. But he says it shouldn't be the end of the Plame story — that more officials should be charged.

That's a view shared by Robert Richer, former No. 2 in the CIA's clandestine service.

"Someone made a conscious decision to disclose the identity of an operative working undercover," Richer says. "And I think that they should be held accountable. It is a criminal offense."

It's not looking likely, though, that anyone will be held accountable. Lead prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald says no additional charges will be filed. That means Libby, who was convicted on charges of lying and obstructing justice, will be the only person to stand trial in the matter — and no one will charged with the actual leak.

Richer finds this troublesome. Valerie Plame's outing, he argues, had consequences not just for her personal safety, but for everyone she had contact with in the field. But Richer says the Libby trial, though flawed, was still worthwhile.

"I do think it got a message across. How do you value a compromised national security operation, or an agent's life? So if this cost us a number of millions of dollars to prosecute this case, and it took up a lot of time... When someone gets ready to disclose this type of information again and they think, 'You know what, I could be held accountable,' then it's probably well worth whatever we paid for it."

But another former CIA officer, Bob Baer, takes away a very different message from the Libby trial. Baer spent 21 years as a covert operative in the Middle East. He worries that the lack of indictments for administration officials beyond Libby leaves the door open for more leaks in future.

"You know, we used to talk in the CIA — 'Can we protect our sources, can we protect our identities?' And the answer is no," Baer says. "Because exposing Valerie Plame was so widespread across the administration, and no one's been charged for exposing her identity."

Baer says he thinks that the takeaway message of what's come to be known as "Plamegate" is this: "If you're sitting in Baghdad or Kabul or anywhere else, you can be exposed by someone else in the government. And there's no consequences."

This view is not universal, though. A CIA spokesman declined to comment. But former senior official Rob Richer remains convinced that the vast majority of government officials understand and respect clandestine operations.

"This in many ways is an anomaly," Richer says. "This has not happened often. You had a weakening here. You had a disclosure for political need. That's a problem. I don't think it'll be repeated."

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