WASHINGTON -- The CIA operative at the center of a three-year federal leak investigation fought back yesterday, suing Vice President Dick Cheney, his former top aide, and presidential advisor Karl Rove, accusing them of ruining her career and seeking revenge against her husband, an administration critic.
The one-time operative, Valerie Plame, and her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, alleged in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that administration officials illegally conspired to violate their constitutional rights and other laws by leaking Plame's identity to reporters.
The civil suit - filed almost three years to the day after syndicated columnist Robert Novak publicly identified Plame - seeks unspecified financial damages.
Wilson and Plame announced yesterday that they were setting up a fund to pay the costs of the litigation and a Web site for contributions. Any money obtained from the suit above and beyond their legal bills will go to charity, they added.
But they and their lawyers said they would not comment about the suit until a news conference scheduled for today. Their legal team includes Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at Duke University law school and a widely respected authority on constitutional law.
The suit marks a new front in a Washington scandal that only a month ago seemed to have run its course - after a federal prosecutor said he had decided not to charge Rove, a primary focus of the three-year probe.
In addition to Rove and Cheney, the suit names former Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who faces a trial early next year on charges of perjury and obstruction in connection with his role in the case.
"The lawsuit concerns the intentional and malicious exposure by senior officials of the federal government of one such human source at the CIA, Valerie Plame Wilson, whose job it was to gather intelligence to make the nation safer, and who risked her life for her country," according to the complaint.
A spokesman for Rove, Mark Corallo, called the allegations "absolutely and utterly without merit."
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said her boss would have no comment. A lawyer for Libby, William Jeffress, also declined comment.
The charges are rooted in one of the most divisive and intensely debated issues of the Bush presidency: whether the administration "twisted" the intelligence it used to justify the war in Iraq.
Novak published Plame's name and her employment in his syndicated column on July 14, 2003 - eight days after an op-ed article, written by her husband, ran in the New York Times. Wilson challenged Bush's assertion in the State of the Union address that year that Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear material in Africa. In 2002, Wilson was sent on a CIA-backed mission to Niger to assess the claim; he concluded in his article that it was unfounded.
Plame had worked as a covert operative on weapons issues; in some circumstances, disclosing the identity of an undercover officer is a federal crime. Wilson and Plame say that her identity was leaked in retaliation for her husband's criticism.
Although Rove and Libby initially denied that they had anything to do with exposing Plame, an investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald showed that both men had spoken with reporters about her - and that Cheney himself was one of the people who gave information about Plame to Libby.
Fitzgerald's probe also revealed that Cheney was acutely concerned about Wilson's criticism and was insinuating privately that his wife had arranged the Africa trip as a "junket."
There has been no evidence that Cheney urged anyone to expose Plame.
The suit was brought in part under a theory that allows citizens to sue federal officials for violating their constitutional rights.
Such suits, known as Bivens actions, are difficult to win. The law affords federal officials immunity from suit where they are acting within the scope of their duties.
The law also requires that the officials know that their conduct affects the exercise of particular constitutional rights. Some legal scholars said it would be hard for Wilson to show that his right to speak out was affected by the decision of Rove and Libby to reveal the CIA affiliation of his wife.
"If you are going to be out there criticizing the government, then the government, just like anybody else, will often try to explain why you are in the wrong. That is part of the public debate," said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.