Gordon Mitchell, Night Talk interview with John McIntire

Televised on the Pittsburgh Cable News Channel

October 1, 2003


JOHN McINTIRE: Ladies and gentlemen, according to the Washington Post, White House aides leaked the identity of a CIA operative, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to at least six reporters. They are not supposed to do that. It is against the law to expose anybody who works for the CIA because it might put their life in danger. Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador from this country, you may recall, cast doubt on the Bush claim, in the State of the Union speech and elsewhere, that Saddam sought uranium from Niger in order to start a nuclear program. You probably know all about this because it is a growing scandal that is all the rage. Here to talk to us about it is Gordon Mitchell, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Welcome back to the show.


GORDON MITCHELL: Thank you John. It’s good to be here.


McINTIRE: So is this as big a deal that some are making it out to be, or is it mountain out of a molehill time? What do you think?


MITCHELL: Well we’ll see. One fine point is that it is not illegal to disclose the identity of someone who works for the CIA.


MCINTIRE: Well, a CIA operative in particular?


MITCHELL: Working undercover.


MCINTIRE: Yes, I understand. So if there is a secretary working in Langley you can reveal them. Okay. Continue to put a fine point on anything you think is too rough-edged. Bob Novak is acting as if, “Look, someone revealed this to me in the course of a conversation about something else.” He does not think it’s a big conspiracy; it’s not a big deal. Yet if the Washington Post is right and this was leaked to six other people, that seems to be a concerted campaign to blow this woman’s cover, and in her case, because she was working undercover, it is illegal. Do you think Novak is right that it is much ado about nothing or is it much more serious than that?


MITCHELL: The court of public opinion is interesting on this question. Just a couple of hours ago a Washington Post poll said 69% of the American public supports appointment of a special prosecutor; 81% of the public think it’s serious. It could have violated two federal laws and done extraordinary damage not only to the lives of operatives associated with Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, but prospective damage in terms of undermining the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to recruit sources in the war an terror and counter threats to national security.


MCINTIRE: This also ratchets up the tension, once again I have heard, and believe to be true, between the White House and the CIA, because there were many in the CIA who were angry over what they saw as the Bush administration’s hyping the rationale for war against Iraq.


MITCHELL: That’s a good question. It builds more context around this and illuminates the significance of the issue. After 9/11, Wolfowitz and others in the administration wanted to focus on Iraq as the second target in the war on terror. Whether Iraq was building up its nuclear capability became a central question. One of the pieces of evidence that was a bit ambiguous at that time related to whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium from abroad. There were conflicting reports. The CIA sent Joseph Wilson on a mission to Niger in February 2002 to try and answer that question. He came back and said no. Yet, the Office of Special Plans, an independent intelligence office set up by the White House to produce evidence to justify an attack on Iraq, said Saddam Hussein is trying to get uranium from Africa. In October 2002, CIA Director George Tenet had success in getting removed from one of President Bush’s speeches a statement regarding the claim that Saddam was getting uranium from Africa.


MCINTIRE: Yes. He removed that reference in a previous speech before he decided to use it in the State of the Union, if I am not mistaken.


MITCHELL: That’s right. And in a State Department fact sheet. So there has been this tug of war between the CIA and the White House back and forth on the uranium issue prior to the revelation of this leak.


MCINTIRE: Let’s go to Chris on the phone who has a question about all of this. Chris?


CALLER: Hi John. The question I have has two parts. First of all, Robert Novak, Peggy Noonan, and other Bush apologists, are suggesting that what Valerie Plame did was not really secret or covert . . .


MCINTIRE: . . . I understand what you are saying but it could be that the fact that her identity was revealed doesn’t pose a threat to her or anybody else, but she is, as far as I understand it, in the classification that is illegal to reveal.


CALLER: I agree with you but one thing I have heard, if I could put it in sort of colloquial terms, she wasn’t like a James Bond secret agent but maybe she was like Three Days of the Condor, where she was sitting an office collecting information and analyzing it, but undercover.


MCINTIRE: Right. As I understand it she was an analyst, largely on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.


CALLER: So is that essentially what kind of covert operative she was? And my second question is, now that her cover, and everyone who worked in her company, is blown, is there some redundancy in the CIA? Is this going to hurt us in the short term, being able to collect and analyze the information she was collecting?


MCINTIRE: I don’t know the answer to that question. Do you?


MITCHELL: Well to back up to the first part of the question, we don’t know exactly what her appointment was. There are indications, very strong ones, that she did in fact work undercover. For example, the CIA did file a formal request for the Department of Justice to investigate. That indicates that there was an unauthorized disclosure of her identity. Also in the last news cycle some of her colleagues have stepped forward and said yes, in fact, we were trained together. One of those sources says that she worked undercover in the Directorate Operations, focusing on weapons of mass destruction.


MCINTIRE: Ambassador Wilson has stated publicly that he thinks this is an attempt to silence critics of the Bush administration since he pooh-poohed any suggestion of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, at least based on uranium from Niger. Although I’m not sure how it would do that. I guess it would make him hesitant to speak out if they are doing things as dangerous as blowing his wife’s cover. Also I thought I heard something alluded to that people in the administration were saying that Ambassador Wilson was just taking a cue from his wife who had grave doubts about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But even if that’s true, she’s an analyst and presumably would be in a better position to know than some people in the Bush administration who were ratting her out. I’m not sure where I’m leading with this, except I’m not exactly sure why the White House would be engaging in these orchestrated leaks. I’m not sure what the purpose was except that Wilson says it was an attempt to silence critics. Do you have any views on that?


MITCHELL: It leads back to the wider issue. Wilson’s charge is not that disclosure of his wife’s identity was designed to silence him, but rather it was a signal sent to deter other potential whistleblowers within the U.S. intelligence community who might be holding information that could be damaging to the Bush administration in terms of questioning its handling of prewar intelligence data.


MCINTIRE: So they were implying that he got his information from her, and that she was a critic. I’m still wondering how that would silence critics, even if the ambassador was right.


MITCHELL: Perhaps a stark way of explaining this is to consider the charge that is circulating that what Karl Rove actually did do after Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked was to call up several journalists and say “Wilson’s wife is fair game.” So perhaps the idea was that this would deter potential whistleblowers by signaling to them that they’ll go after your family if you speak out against the Bush administration.


MCINTIRE: Right. And how are they going after his family? By blowing her cover. If that’s truly dangerous, how much more can you go after a family than that, if revealing her identity puts her in danger? All right, let’s take a break. When we come back, Jim, if you are still there we’ll get to your question for University of Pittsburgh professor Gordon Mitchell on the ambassador Joseph Wilson scandal in a moment.


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McINTIRE: Back with University of Pittsburgh professor Gordon Mitchell. So the Justice Department supposedly is investigating this. Bush and others are resisting calls for a special counsel. Do you think the Justice Department under John Ashcroft has any credibility and will do a fair and balanced investigation?


MITCHELL: It remains to be seen. One of the factors that is important there is the October 15, 2002 memorandum from Ashcroft to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert. That memo laid out specific guidelines for what the government should do when there is an alleged leak of this type. Two very notable things in those guidelines – number one is that the investigation should be conducted in parallel, in other words, by the Department of Justice, and then also the affected agency, in this case the White House. Second, the guidelines say an ongoing DOJ investigation should not delay or forestall an independent and parallel investigation by the affected agency, which here is the White House. The White House is not conducting an independent investigation of its own. Bush has said that he is not asking his aides to try and get to the bottom of this. He is simply cooperating with the Department of Justice and saying that’s where the investigation should stay. He is saying he won’t impede it but he won’t investigate on his own.


McINTIRE: When I see coverage on CNN and elsewhere, I see Bush saying “this investigation is a good thing.” To me, that is another stupid statement, because the fact that the investigation has to take place is not a good thing. I know he is trying to send a signal to the country that he is above board and he wants to root out evildoers, even within his own administration, but the fact that the investigation has to take a place is not a good thing. And secondly, he has absolutely no credibility with me; he is as political as his main man Karl Rove. The last thing they would like to happen, if there is any truth to this, is for the truth to come out. But what do I know? I’m biased. Let’s find out what Al thinks. Al, how are you?


CALLER: Hi John.


McINTIRE: Go ahead.


CALLER: What about the gobs of money that they found over there when they were having the war? They found truckloads of money and now they want the taxpayers to send $87 billion over there. What did they do with all the money? They found truckloads of money.


McINTIRE: Al I don’t know. I’ll ask Gordon if he knows. I’m pretty sure it all just went to Halliburton, but that’s just my theory.


MITCHELL: A comment about the $87 billion. It might be useful to note in that context that one of the reasons why the reconstruction bill is so high is because faulty intelligence coming out of the Office of Special Plans said look, we’re just going to roll into Iraq, we can hand over the reins to Ahmad Chalabi, and the Iraqis themselves can pay for reconstruction. This is yet another symptom of the White House engineering an independent channel of intelligence, preempting the CIA and resulting in flawed policy.


McINTIRE: And apparently they grossly underestimated the dismal state of affairs in the oil fields as well, so they can’t get the oil up and running in order to sell it and try to get it to pay for some of this stuff, or so I’ve read. Here is Dan on the line. Dan, what do you have to say?


CALLER: I want you guys to try and answer these questions if you can without trying to spin them, okay?


McINTIRE: I’m trying to spin; he’s not.


CALLER: Okay. First of all, when this Wilson came out and he said that he investigated this yellowcake thing, he implied, and I heard do it several times, he implied that Dick Cheney himself sent him through the CIA to do this, and he also reported to Dick Cheney. So now we find out three things. First, his investigation largely consisted of teas he had with government officials from Niger. Number two, the person from the CIA who basically got him the job, got him the free airplane ticket over to Africa, and got him the TV time, was his wife who didn’t even have the same name, so it was not easy to know it was his wife. Thirdly, when they say somebody is undercover in the CIA, and they work at an embassy, that means they work at the Department of Agriculture but they are really in the CIA, or they work in the Department of Commerce but they really work for the CIA. It doesn’t mean she is out wearing a trenchcoat . . .


McINTIRE: . . . Okay, thank you for that call. Let me try to answer your questions from my point of view then we’ll get to Gordon. Number one, she is in a classification that should not be revealed. It is supposed to remain classified. That’s a fact. Number two, even the White House has apologized for saying that Saddam got uranium from Niger. They have conceded they do not have any good intelligence to back that up. So they concede the results of Ambassador Wilson’s investigation, lame or not. I forgot what the first point was. What do you have to say about all of this?


MITCHELL: The mint tea. Might it have clouded his judgment?


McINTIRE: Right. The mint tea.


MITCHELL: When you look at Wilson’s record, it is exemplary as a diplomat. He has wide experience in the oil industry as well as Africa and Baghdad so I think his qualifications speak for themselves.


McINTIRE: And if Cheney sent him, they must have thought he was credible.


MITCHELL: Actually that is one of the points he has backed off on. He says now that he did not know the CIA agents who had originally tasked him with the mission. So the Cheney reference was hearsay.


McINTIRE: Well the CIA sent him, even if the Vice President’s office didn’t, so they must have thought he was credible.


MITCHELL: Presumably.


McINTIRE: Okay, not much time left. Do you have any predictions about the future of Iraq, how soon we can stabilize it, create some semblance of a pseudo-democracy? Whether or not the terrorists are going to throw a monkey wrench into the works for years to come?


MITCHELL: International involvement is an important issue. Certainly having a UN resolution to bring more Europeans into the fold to help with the reconstruction effort will be important. The flow of money into Iraq to finance reconstruction is also something to watch closely. Already there are calls being made on Capitol Hill saying we don’t want to spend any more money; we want to make all the rest loans. That would be very difficult in terms of strangling the nascent economy.


McINTIRE: George Bush still has a long way to go in repairing relations with the rest of the world. There seems to be some movement on that, but it seems to be very slow, and I can’t tell if it’s real.


MITCHELL: I was reading that he’s got a “new tone,” but this sure is a tough time to try it out.


McINTIRE: University of Pittsburgh Professor Gordon Mitchell, good to see you again. Thank you.


MITCHELL: Good to see you, John.