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Plame:  I felt like I had been hit in the gut

/ Source: The Associated Press

Valerie Plame, the CIA operative at the heart of a political scandal, told Congress Friday that senior officials at the White House and State Department "carelessly and recklessly" blew her cover to discredit her diplomat-husband.

Plame, whose 2003 outing triggered a federal investigation, said she always knew her identity could be discovered by foreign governments.

"It was a terrible irony that administration officials were the ones who destroyed my cover," she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"If our government cannot even protect my identity, future foreign agents who might consider working with the Central Intelligence Agency and providing needed intelligence would think twice," Plame said in response to a question.

When asked how the release of her identity affected her, Plame said, "I felt like I had been hit in the gut."

The hearing was the first time Plame has publicly answered questions about the case, which led to the recent perjury and obstruction of justice conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Her appearance was a moment of gripping political theater as Democrats questioned whether the Bush administration mishandled classified information by leaking her identity to reporters. No one has been charged with leaking her identity.

"It's not our job to determine criminal culpability, but it is out job to determine what went wrong and insist on accountability," Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said at the outset of the hearing.

No testimony from Fitzgerald
The man who led the criminal investigation, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, was not on the witness list. He told lawmakers Wednesday that federal law prohibited him from offering his thoughts on the case.

Nobody from the White House involved in the leak was scheduled to testify. Neither were officials from the State Department, where the first leak of Plame's identity occurred, or the CIA.

Plame sat alone at a witness table and fielded questions about her CIA career and the disclosure of her name in July 2003 in a story by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. Novak has said that former Deputy State Department Secretary Richard Armitage first revealed Plame's job and President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and CIA spokesman Bill Harlow confirmed it.

"My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior officials in the White House and State Department," Plame testified. "I could no longer perform the work for which I had been highly trained."

Plame said she had no role in sending her husband on a CIA fact-finding trip to Niger. Wilson said in a newspaper column that his trip debunked the administration's prewar intelligence that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa.

"I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority," she said.

That conflicts with senior officials at the CIA and State Department, who testified during Libby's trial that Plame recommended Wilson for the trip.

Plame also repeatedly described herself as a covert operative, a term that has multiple meanings. Plame said she worked undercover and traveled abroad on secret missions for the CIA.

But the word "covert" also has a legal definition requiring recent foreign service and active efforts to keep someone's identity secret. Critics of Fitzgerald's investigation said Plame did not meet that definition for several reasons and said that's why nobody was charged with the leak.

Also, none of the witnesses who testified at Libby's trial said it was clear that Plame's job was classified.

However, Fitzgerald said flatly at the courthouse after the verdict that Plame's job was classified.

The issue was not clarified during the trial because the defense persuaded U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton to keep that information out of testimony because Libby wasn't charged with leaking classified information.

Rep. Tom Davis, the ranking Republican on the committee, said, "No process can be adopted to protect classified information that no one knows is classified. This looks to me more like a CIA problem than a White House problem."

Plame said she wasn't a lawyer and didn't know what her legal status was but said it shouldn't have mattered to the officials who learned her identity.

"They all knew that I worked with the CIA," Plame said. "They might not have known what my status was but that alone - the fact that I worked for the CIA - should have put up a red flag."

Wilson has written a book, and Plame is working on one, "Fair Game," although it has had a troubled history. In May 2006, the Crown Publishing Group announced it would publish her book, a deal reportedly worth seven figures. But the two sides could not agree on a final contract, and two months later an agreement was announced with Simon & Schuster.

Plame's book is subject to a mandatory review by the CIA. On Thursday, Simon & Schuster spokesman Adam Rothberg would say only that the book was "in progress," and that publication was expected soon.

Scheduled to testify Friday were attorney Mark Zaid, who has represented whistle-blowers; attorney Victoria Toensing, who said early on that no law was broken and has criticized the CIA's handling of the case, and J. William Leonard, security director of the National Archives, who was to discuss general procedures for handling sensitive information.

James Knodell, director of the White House security office, also could attend to discuss general security procedures, committee officials said.

After the outing
Plame's life changed the day her name appeared in a newspaper column, her job as a CIA officer exposed in black and white.

She goes before the committee Friday as both a shadowy figure and a celebrity, with lucrative book and movie deals in the works, a magazine cover in her past and her unceremonious unmasking four years ago the subject of persistent intrigue.

Now she is lifting the veil by her own hand, and to maximum effect.

The full House of Representatives is not in session Friday and Plame's only competition for attention in Washington is a Senate subcommittee hearing on next year's budget for smaller federal agencies, and the annual St. Patrick's Day exchange of shamrocks at the White House between President Bush and Ireland's prime minister. In other words, it's no contest.

She's telling her story to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where Democrats are eager to explore the circumstances of her outing and how the White House responded to the leak of her identity.

Few words, many appearances
Although she's had little to say publicly, Plame has made more than a few splashy appearances with her husband. Last month alone, the Wilsons attended a book party for Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party chairman, and were spotted having lunch with actress Morgan Fairchild at the Four Seasons.

Then there was last year's announcement that they were suing Bush administration officials they blame for ending her career. They rubbed elbows with Washington's glitterati at a celebrity-studded awards dinner for the White House press corps that year.

The couple famously posed in his Jaguar for the January 2004 cover of Vanity Fair magazine. A scarf covered Plame's blonde hair and dark sunglasses hid her eyes - deepening the sense of mystery.

The book
The disclosure of Plame's name closed one chapter in her life, but opened others.

The mother of 7-year-old twins, a boy and girl, is putting final touches on a book about her life and the leak of her name, tentatively titled "Fair Game," for which publisher Simon & Schuster paid her an advance of over $1 million.

"She is hopeful she'll be able to get it out soon," Wilson said last week. "She's in discussion with the CIA about it."

Plame submitted the manuscript to the CIA for a mandatory review, which is done to make sure the book tells no government secrets. It was returned to Plame, who left the agency in January 2006, with suggestions.

"We are all awaiting Ms. Wilson's resubmission," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said Thursday. "In most cases, we are able to work it out in a way that satisfies everyone's concerns."

Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon & Schuster, on Thursday would say only that the book was "in progress," with publication expected soon.

The movie
Plame's story also is headed for the big screen. Warner Bros. is developing a film based on the couple's lives, a screenplay is being written and Plame and her husband are expected to serve as consultants.

Asked who he'd like to play them in the movie, Wilson, who has done most of the couple's talking, joked: "I don't know. I would only ask that Jack Black be cast in a role other than that of Joe Wilson."

The civil case against Bush administration officials also is moving forward, and that will keep both of their names in the headlines - long after their imminent move to New Mexico. Arguments are set for May 17 in U.S. District Court.

Plame and her husband blame Vice President Dick Cheney; presidential adviser Karl Rove; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage for revealing her identity and, effectively, ending her career.

"Valerie wishes none of this ever happened," said Melanie Sloan, an attorney who represents Plame in the lawsuit and who directs the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "She had the life she wanted. She had the job she wanted."