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Opening Remarks: Valerie Plame Testifies Before Congress

Opening Remarks: Valerie Plame Testifies Before Congress
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing on CIA Identity Leak

CQ Transcripts Wire
Friday, March 16, 2007; 11:51 AM


MARCH 16, 2007







WAXMAN: The meeting of the committee will come to order.

Today the committee is holding a hearing to examine how the White House handles highly classified information.

In June and July 2003, one of the nation's most carefully guarded secrets, the identity of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame Wilson, was repeatedly revealed by White House officials to members of the media. This was an extraordinarily serious breach of our national security.

President George W. Bush's father, the former President Bush, said, and I quote, "I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who expose the names of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."

Today, we'll be asking three questions. One, how did such a serious violation of our national security occur? Two, did the White House take the appropriate investigative and disciplinary steps after the breach occurred? And three, what changes in White House procedures are necessary to prevent future violations of our national security from occurring?

For more than three years a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been investigating the leak for its criminal implications. By definition, Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation had an extremely narrow criminal focus. It did not answer the broader policy questions raised by the release of Miss Wilson's identity. Nor did it seek to ascribe responsibility outside of the narrow confines of the criminal law.

As the chief investigative committee of the House of Representatives, our role is fundamentally different that Mr. Fitzgerald's. It's not our job to determine criminal culpability, but it is our job to understand what went wrong and to insist on accountability and to make recommendations for future -- to avoid future abuses.

WAXMAN: And we begin that process today.

This hearing is being conducted in open session. This is appropriate, but it is also challenging. Ms. Wilson was a covert employee of the CIA. We cannot discuss all of the details of her CIA employment in open session.

I have met, personally, with General Hayden, the head of the CIA, to discuss what I can and cannot say about Ms. Wilson's service. And I want to thank him for his cooperation and help in guiding us along these lines.

My staff has also worked with the agency to ensure these remarks do not contain classified information.

I have been advised by the CIA and that even now, after all that has happened, I cannot disclose the full nature, scope and character of Ms. Wilson's service to our nation without causing serious damage to our national security interests.

But General Hayden and the CIA have cleared these following comments for today's hearing.

During her employment at the CIA, Ms. Wilson was undercover. Her employment status with the CIA was classified information, prohibited from disclosure under Executive Order 12958.

At the time of the publication of Robert Novak's column on July 14, 2003, Ms. Wilson's CIA employment status was covert. This was classified information.

Ms. Wilson served in senior management positions at the CIA, in which she oversaw the work for other CIA employees and she attained the level of GS-14, Step 6, under the federal pay scale.

Ms. Wilson worked on some of the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA.

Ms. Wilson served at various times overseas for the CIA.

WAXMAN: Without discussing the specifics of Ms. Wilson's classified work, it is accurate to say that she worked on the prevention of the development and use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States.

In her various positions at the CIA, Ms. Wilson faced significant risks to her personal safety and her life. She took on serious risks on behalf of our country.

Ms. Wilson's work in many situations had consequence for the security of her colleagues, and maintaining her cover was critical to protecting the safety of both colleagues and others.

The disclosure of Ms. Wilson's employment with the CIA had several serious effects. First, it terminated her covert job opportunities with the CIA. Second, it placed her professional contacts at greater risk. And third, it undermined the trust and confidence with which future CIA employees and sources hold the United States.

This disclosure of Ms. Wilson's classified employment status with the CIA was so detrimental that the CIA filed a crimes report with the Department of Justice.

As I mentioned, Ms. Wilson's work was so sensitive that even now she is still prohibited from discussing many details of her work in public because of the continuing risks to CIA officials and assets in the field and to the CIA's ongoing work.

WAXMAN: Some have suggested that Ms. Wilson did not have a sensitive position with the CIA or a position of unusual risk. As a CIA employee, Ms. Wilson has taken a lifelong oath to protect classified information, even after her CIA employment has ended. As a result, she cannot respond to most of the statements made about her.

I want to make clear, however, that any characterization that minimizes the personal risk of Ms. Wilson that she accepted in her assignments is flatly wrong. There should be no confusion on this point.

Ms. Wilson has provided great service to our nation and has fulfilled her obligation to protect classified information admirably. And we're confident she will uphold it again today.

Well, that concludes the characterizations that the CIA is permitting us to make today. But to these comments, I want to add a personal note.

For many in politics, praising the troops and those who defend our freedom is second nature. Sometimes it's done in sincerity and sometimes it's done with cynicism, but almost always we don't really know who the people are, we don't know who those people are that are out there. They are abstract heroes, whether serving in the armed services or whether they're serving in the CIA.

WAXMAN: Two weeks ago, this committee met some real heroes face- to-face when we went to visit Walter Reed. Every member was appalled at what we learned: Our treatment of the troops didn't match our rhetoric.

Thankfully, Mrs. Wilson hasn't suffered physical harm and faces much more favorable circumstances now than some of the troops, some of the soldiers, that we met last week.

But she, too, has been one of those people fighting to protect our freedom. And she, like thousands of others, was serving our country bravely and anonymously.

She didn't ask that her identity be revealed, but it was, repeatedly. And that was an inexcusable breach of the responsibilities our country owes to her. Once again, our actions did not match our rhetoric.

I want to thank Mrs. Wilson for the tremendous service she gave to our country and recognize the remarkable personal sacrifices she and countless others have made to protect our national security.

You and your colleagues perform truly heroic work. And what happened to you not only should never have happened, but we should all work to make sure it never happens again.

Thank you very much.

I want to yield to Mr. Davis, the ranking member of our committee. And in doing so, I want to thank him for his cooperation in this hearing.

This has been a complicated hearing; much more complicated than most of our hearings. We had to decide what we could and what we couldn't say, what we could and couldn't ask, whether we're going to be in open session or closed session, et cetera.

And I want to thank Mr. Davis for the tremendous cooperation he's given us and to recognize him at this point.

T. DAVIS: Thank you, Chairman Waxman.

I want to first start by congratulating you on the passage of important reform legislation this week. We adopted bipartisan bills, crafted in this committee, to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, disclose donors to presidential libraries, expand access to presidential records and to fortify whistleblower protections.

T. DAVIS: Given those accomplishments, it's ironic that we end Sunshine Week of the annual observance of open government with a more partisan hearing on how to best keep secrets.

Let me state at the outset that the outing of Mrs. Wilson's identity was wrong. And we have every right to look at this and investigate it.

But I have to confess I'm not sure what we're trying to accomplish today, given all the limitations that the chairman has just described has been put on us by the CIA.

Ostensibly called to examine White House procedures for handling and protecting classified information, the hearing's lead witness never worked at the White House. If she knows about security practices there, she can't say much about them in a public forum.

We do know that she worked at the CIA. That now well-known fact raises some very different questions about how critical but difficult it is to protect the identity of individuals with covert status.

But again, those are questions we probably can't say much about in a public forum, without violating the very security safeguards the majority claims to be worried about at the White House.

Under these circumstances, perhaps, a hypothetical case is the best way to describe the futility of trying to enforce the Intelligence Identity Protection Act in this decidedly nonjudicial venue.

Let's say, for example, a member of a committee staff is told to identify a CIA witness for a hearing on security practices.

He or she calls the agency and asks to speak with Official A. Official A's not in, so the call's routed to Official B, who identifies him or herself by name and title and answers the staffer's question.

Thinking Official B would be a fine witness, the staff member then calls the Congressional Research Service or a friend at another committee to find out more about Official B.

But Official B happens to be a covert agent. In passing the name, title and CIA affiliation around, has the staff member violated the law against disclosure?

Probably not, but you'd have to be looking through a pretty thick political prism to see an intentional, unauthorized disclosure in that context. And that happened.

In the case of Mrs. Wilson, the majority stresses the fact that disclosure of her status triggered a crimes report by the CIA and the Justice Department. Allegations against White House officials and reporters were thoroughly vetted.

But after spending six months and millions of dollars, the special counsel charged no one with the violations of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

T. DAVIS: The lack of prosecution under the act shows those disclosures probably occurred in a similarly nonintentional context, lacking the requisite knowledge of covert status or the intention to disclose that status without authorization.

No process can be adopted to protect classified information that no one knows is classified, just as no one can be prosecuted for unauthorized disclosure of information that no one ever said was protected.

So this looks to me more like a CIA problem than a White House problem. If the agency doesn't take sufficient precautions to protect the identity of those who engage in covert work, no one else can do it for them.

The same law meant to protect secret identities also requires an annual report to Congress on the steps taken to protect the highly sensitive information, but we're told few, if any, such reports exist from the CIA.

Who knows what information needs to be protected and how they are told? Is there a list officials can check against? Do CIA briefers know when material given to executive branch officials references a covert agent or are they cautioned not to repeat the name? How is it made known and to whom when the five-year protection period for a formerly covert agent has elapsed?

Those are the questions that need to be asked about the safeguards on classified information. But we won't hear from the CIA today, because this is an open forum.

Given all that, I suspect we're going to probably waste some time talking about things we can't talk about, and that's unfortunate: unfortunate an individual possibly still in a covert status was publicly identified; unfortunate executive branch officials got anywhere near this media maelstrom rather than focus on more serious problems, that's a disappointment to me; and unfortunate that this has become so politicized.

On this side, we're not here to defend or attack anyone. In an open session, we hope to shed some sunshine on the workings of government. I have to say again, I'm not sure that's going to happen today, but I thank our witnesses for trying.

Thank you.

WAXMAN: Thank you very much, Mr. Davis.

Our first witness is Ms. Valerie Plame Wilson. She's a former covert CIA employee whose service to this country included work involving the prevention of the development and use of weapons of mass destruction against our nation. Her employment status was name was revealed in July 2003, effectively terminating her covert job opportunities within the CIA.

WAXMAN: Ms. Wilson, it's the practice of this committee that all witnesses are administered an oath, and I'd like to ask you to stand and raise your right hand.

Do you promise to tell the truth and nothing but the truth?


WAXMAN: Thank you.

The record will reflect the fact that the witness answered in the affirmative.

Before we begin the questioning period, I want to underscore to members of the committee that while it is important that Ms. Wilson have the opportunity to provide testimony that will help us understand the significance of the disclosure of her CIA employment status, we should not be seeking classified information from Ms. Wilson in this open forum and we need to respect that she may in some cases have to decline to respond on the grounds that doing so would risk disclosure of sensitive information.

Ms. Wilson, we're pleased to have you here. Thank you very much for coming to our committee today. And I want to recognize you for an opening statement.

WILSON: Good morning, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee.

My name is Valerie Plame Wilson, and I am honored to have been invited to testify under oath before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the critical issue of safeguarding classified information.

I am grateful for this opportunity to set the record straight.

I've served the United States loyally and to the best of my ability as a covert operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. I worked on behalf of the national security of our country, on behalf of the people of the United States, until my name and true affiliation were exposed in the national media on July 14th, 2003, after a leak by an administration official.

Today I can tell this committee even more.

In the run-up to the war with Iraq, I worked in the Counterproliferation Division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified. I raced (ph) to discover solid intelligence for senior policymakers on Iraq's presumed weapons of mass destruction program.

While I helped to manage and run secret worldwide operations against this WMD target from CIA headquarters in Washington, I also traveled to foreign countries on secret missions to find vital intelligence.

WILSON: I loved my career, because I love my country. I was proud of the serious responsibilities entrusted to me as a CIA covert operations officer. And I was dedicated to this work.

It was not common knowledge on the Georgetown cocktail circuit that everyone knew where I worked. But all of my efforts on behalf of the national security of the United States, all of my training, all the value of my years of service, were abruptly ended when my name and identity were exposed irresponsibly.

In the course of the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby I was shocked by the evidence that emerged. My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior government officials in both the White House and the State Department.

All of them understood that I worked for the CIA. And, having signed oaths to protect national security secrets, they should have been diligent in protecting me and every CIA officer.

The CIA goes to great lengths to protect all of its employees, providing at significant taxpayers' expense painstakingly devised and creative covers for its most sensitive staffers.

The harm that is done when a CIA cover is blown is grave. But I can't provide details beyond that in this public hearing. But the concept is obvious.

Not only have breaches of national security endangered CIA officers, it has jeopardized and even destroyed entire networks of foreign agents, who in turn risk their own lives and those of their families to provide the United States with needed intelligence.

Lives are literally at stake.

Every single one of my former CIA colleagues, from my fellow covert officers to analysts to technical operations officers to even the secretaries, understand the vulnerabilities of our officers and recognize that the travesty of what happened to me could happen to them.

We in the CIA always know that we might be exposed and threatened by foreign enemies.

WILSON: It was a terrible irony that administration officials were the ones who destroyed my cover.

Furthermore, testimony in the criminal trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, who has now been convicted of serious crimes, indicates that my exposure arose from purely political motives.

Within the CIA, it is essential that all intelligence be evaluated on the basis of its merits and actual credibility. National security depends upon it.

The tradecraft of intelligence is not a product of speculation. I feel passionately, as an intelligence professional, about the creeping, insidious politicizing of our intelligence process.

All intelligence professionals are dedicated to the ideal that they would rather be fired on the spot than distort the facts to fit a political view, any political view or any ideology.

As our intelligence agencies go through reorganizations and experience the painful aspects of change, and our country faces profound challenges, injecting partisanship or ideology into the equation makes effective and accurate intelligence that much more difficult to develop.

Politics and ideology must be stripped completely from our intelligence services, or the consequences will be even more severe than they have been, and our country placed in even greater danger.

It is imperative for any president to be able to make decisions based on intelligence that is unbiased.

The Libby trial and the events leading to the Iraq war highlight the urgent need to restore the highest professional standards of intelligence collection and analysis, and the protection of our officers and operations.

The Congress has a constitutional duty to defend our national security. And that includes safeguarding our intelligence.

WILSON: That is why I am grateful for this opportunity to appear before this committee today and to assist in its important work.

Thank you. And I well welcome any questions.

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