Former CIA officer Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, said Friday they decided to sue Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential adviser Karl Rove because they engaged in a "whispering campaign" to destroy her career.
Followed in and out of the National Press Club like Hollywood celebrities - by a swarm of cameras and reporters - Plame said, "Joe and I have filed action with heavy hearts," adding, "I and my former colleagues trusted the government to protect us in our jobs" and said it "betrayed that trust. I'd much rather be continuing my career as a public servant than as a plaintiff in a lawsuit."
Said Wilson: "We are under no illusions about how tough this fight will be. But we believe the time has come to hold those who use their official positions to exact personal revenge accountable and responsible for their actions."
In the suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, Plame and her husband said that Cheney, Rove and Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, leaked her CIA status to reporters to punish Wilson for criticizing the Bush administration's motives in Iraq.
Plame's identity as a CIA officer was revealed in a July 14, 2003, article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. At the time, Plame's job as an operations officer was classified information. Novak's column appeared eight days after Wilson alleged in an opinion piece in The New York Times that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence on Iraq to justify going to war.
The lawsuit accuses Cheney, Libby, Rove and 10 unnamed administration officials or political operatives of putting the Wilsons and their children's lives at risk by exposing Plame, who left the CIA in January and is writing a book about what's happened to her.
Wilson defends op-ed
At Friday's news conference, Wilson noted he had written an op-ed criticizing the administration's defense of going to war in Iraq, saying "I exercised my civil duty to hold my government to account."
"This attack was based on lies and disinformation and it included the compromise of Valerie's identity," he added. "I have confidence in the American system of justice and this suit is about the pursuit of justice."
The CIA had sent Wilson to Niger in early 2002 to determine whether there was any truth to reports that Iraq had made a deal to acquire yellowcake uranium from the government of Niger to make a nuclear weapon. Wilson discounted the reports, but the allegation that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa ended up in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
If the Wilsons' lawsuit survives the legal maneuvering that usually occurs in such cases, it could be embarrassing for Republicans in the next presidential election if Cheney and other top White House officials are forced to answer questions in depositions.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Rove, said, "Without even having had a chance to review the complaint, it is clear that the allegations are absolutely and utterly without merit."
Barbara Comstock, a Libby spokesman, declined comment.
Justice Department lawyers plan to review the lawsuit to determine how to respond, said Charles Miller, a department spokesman.
The Wilsons' lawyer said in the lawsuit that it "concerns the intentional and malicious exposure by senior officials of the federal government of ... (Plame), whose job it was to gather intelligence to make the nation safer and who risked her life for her country."
Instead of confronting Wilson on his criticism, the lawsuit said, the White House officials "embarked on an anonymous 'whispering campaign' designed to discredit ... (the Wilsons) and to deter other critics from speaking out."
The lawsuit alleges that Cheney, Libby and Rove "secretly spread rumors" that Plame used her position at the CIA to get her husband sent on the Niger trip. It accuses the White House officials of violating the Wilsons' constitutional rights to equal protection and freedom of speech. It also accuses the officials of violating the couple's privacy rights.
In the filing, the Wilsons seek unspecified damages, attorneys fees and costs after White House officials, instead of confronting Wilson on his criticism, "embarked on an anonymous whispering campaign' designed to discredit ... (the Wilsons) and to deter other critics from speaking out."
The federal judge assigned to the case, John D. Bates, was appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush and was a U.S. Attorney who worked for Independent Counsel Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation from 1995 to mid-1997. When on the Starr team, Bates pushed hard (and successfully) for the release of various White House documents related to Hillary Rodham Clinton's activities. During his confirmation hearings, Senator Patrick Leahy said of Bates, “When that guy was working for Ken Starr, he wanted to go open the dresser drawers of the White House.''
Friday, Wilson said the legal fight will be funded in-part by donations solicited by a just unveiled website: www.wilsonsupport.org. The solicitation for support reads, "To help Ambassador Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame Wilson pay for the substantial legal costs associated with the illegal leaking of Mrs. Wilson's classified CIA status. This includes: Counseling them for their potential witness testimony during the upcoming trial of Scooter Libby; and helping them to prepare for a civil suit that would uncover the truth surrounding the leak, ensure all relevant public officials are held accountable for actions depriving the Wilsons of their privacy and constitutional rights, and serve as a deterrent to similar crimes being committed in the future."
Libby is the only administration official charged in connection with the leak investigation. He faces trial in January on perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges, accused of lying to FBI agents and a federal grand jury about when he learned Plame's identity and what he subsequently told reporters.
The Wilsons' said they do not want their suit to interfere in any way with the trial of I Lewis "Scooter" Libby. That trial is scheduled to begin early in 2007.
Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald told Rove's lawyer last month that he had decided not to seek criminal charges against Rove.
NBC's Joel Seidman contributed to this story.