Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Was Valerie Plame a 'covert' agent?

Andrew Sullivan quotes Robert Novak on the subject of  Valerie Plame's status as a CIA 'operative'. Novak claims that Plame was never endangered because "According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operator, and not in charge of undercover operatives" -- and by implication suggests that it was not improper or illegal to divulge her connection to the CIA.

The test of a 'covert agent' as defined by 50 USC Section 246 is:

(4) The term ''covert agent'' means -

(A) a present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency or a present or retired member of the Armed Forces assigned to duty with an intelligence agency -

(i) whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and
(ii) who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States; or

(B) a United States citizen whose intelligence relationship to the United States is classified information, and -

(i) who resides and acts outside the United States as an agent of, or informant or source of operational assistance to, an intelligence agency, or
(ii) who is at the time of the disclosure acting as an agent of, or informant to, the foreign counterintelligence or foreign counterterrorism components of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; or

(C) an individual, other than a United States citizen, whose past or present intelligence relationship to the United States is classified information and who is a present or former agent of, or a present or former informant or source of operational assistance to, an intelligence agency.

A plain layman's reading of the statute suggests there's no distinction drawn between spies and analysts and that Valerie Plame may qualify as a 'covert agent' under (A). Maybe some jurisprudence defines this more narrowly.

If it's any consolation to Novak, he's in the junior leagues when it comes to outing agents, covert or otherwise. A Wired article circa 2000 claimed that:

A freedom of information activist plans to publish online a classified CIA document that was pulled from The New York Times' site after newspaper officials learned it exposed the identities of Iranians involved in the 1953 U.S. and British-backed coup that overthrew Iran's elected officials. The Times used the graphic to accompany an article detailing the coup. In a technical glitch, those who visited the Times website on June 16 were able to read the names of the agents when they downloaded the graphic.

The agents, though probably old men or deceased by now, would qualify as 'covert' under (C). There's a site on the Web called Namebase which purports to list out CIA agents. Namebase identifies itself as part of Public Information Research, incorporated in Virginia, with 501(c)3 status. A domain search shows their site is registered to:

Registrant Name:Daniel Brandt
Registrant Street1:PO Box 680635
Registrant City:San Antonio
Registrant State/Province:Texas

Daniel Brandt is openly identified as a Director of Public Information Research, Namebase's parent, and seems to have nothing to hide, even though he is said to have assisted Philip Agee detail the covert operations of the CIA. So is Novak safe? Were his sources, whoever they may be, acting properly? Lawyers are probably more qualified to determine what is punishable under 50 USC, which supposedly protects the identities of American intelligence agents. But it does seem to involve a few wrinkles. I guess some people are guiltier than others.