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Julie Hirschfeld Davis on the CIA leak probe

T.C., Columbia: What differentiates Robert Novak from the other journalists that revealed [CIA agent Valerie] Plame's identity? What repercussions could he be facing?

Davis: This is one of the more intriguing mysteries of the CIA leak investigation, and the short answer is we don't know what sets Novak apart from the other journalists who either wrote about Plame or spoke about her with administration officials. The fact that the prosecutor never sought to hold him in contempt of court -- as he did with both Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times before they agreed to testify before the grand jury -- strongly suggests that he cooperated with the investigation, including divulging his confidential source for the information.

That means Novak has already avoided the only repercussions he could have faced. The statute that makes it a crime, under some circumstances, to expose a covert CIA agent's identity is not designed to apply to a reporter, and likely could not. It requires that the person who unmasks the agent have authorized access to classified information or be in the business of outing covert agents, neither of which would likely apply to Novak or most journalists.

Joel Harmatz, Delray Beach, Fla.: On two occasions, I have heard Newt Gingrich call [retired diplomat Joseph C.] Wilson a "liar." On each, he justified his accusation on the basis of a Senate report. I have neither read, nor heard anyone else refer to such a finding or report. Could you identify it and just what falsehoods it might have attributed to Wilson? It also would be interesting to learn what evidence the report might have cited if it did in fact impugn Wilson's veracity. As a sidebar, this makes a good story that seemingly has been overlooked by the press.

Davis: Gingrich and many other Republicans who call Wilson a liar cite a 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report to justify their accusation. The report doesn't call Wilson's account false, but it casts some doubt on the conclusions he drew from his 2002 trip to Niger.

Wilson went to investigate for the CIA whether Saddam Hussein had, as some intelligence suggested, sought to buy uranium from Africa. He reported back that there was no evidence the transaction had ever taken place and could not have, but he said Iraq had expressed interest in "expanding commercial relations" with Niger. That message was interpreted by at least one top Nigerien official as a veiled expression of interest in acquiring nuclear materials from the African nation. The Senate Intelligence Committee report found this exchange significant, and suggested it was potential evidence that Hussein was, in fact, seeking to purchase nuclear materials from Niger, even if he never did.

The report also pointed out some inconsistencies between what Wilson told the CIA about his conclusions from Niger and what he later told the committee. Wilson reported to the CIA that an Iraq-Niger uranium deal was unlikely and that Nigerien officials had denied one had taken place. But he was more definitive when he spoke to the committee, saying that Iraq never sought to buy uranium from Niger.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also suggests strongly that it was Wilson's wife, Plame, who suggested him for the Niger mission, although Wilson has denied that and said she only acted as a "conduit" for the agency's request that he go.

Elaine Weintraub, Baltimore: I don't understand the context in which Valerie Plame's name was even discussed in the office of the [vice president]. Can [Dick] Cheney's office snoop into the personnel records of Mr. Wilson to find out his spouse's name? Of all the employees in the CIA, why was her name mentioned if not to get at Mr. Wilson? Were other CIA employees' names discussed?

Davis: The CIA sent Wilson on his mission to Niger to determine the authenticity of intelligence President Bush later used to justify the war in Iraq. So when reporters first started writing about a retired diplomat who had investigated the intelligence Bush cited and found it to be wrong, Cheney and other government officials, including at the State Department, asked the CIA who the diplomat was.

They learned it was Wilson, and somehow in the course of their discussions about who he was, discovered his wife also worked at the agency. It appears that [I. Lewis "Scooter"] Libby and others in Cheney's office were eager to get this information out to the public, most likely to distance themselves from Wilson's claims.

If the CIA sent Wilson to Africa on its own -- because his wife, an agent, suggested him for the mission -- then it would be more plausible that the White House might not be aware of Wilson's conclusions. We don't know whether other CIA employees' names were discussed.

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