In a July 26 editorial, The Washington Times made two claims to support its contention that the Bush administration was not at fault for damage to intelligence operations resulting from the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In doing so, the Times mischaracterized its own news coverage to claim without evidence that Plame's neighbors knew that she worked at the CIA before syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak revealed her identity in a July 14, 2003, column. White House senior adviser Karl Rove has come under fire for his alleged role in leaking Plame's identity.
Referring to a roundtable discussion of the topic on the July 24 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, the Times editorial claimed that National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg was engaging in hyperbole in claiming that Plame's "whole network was put in jeopardy by the revelation of her identity." Among its reasons for downplaying the damage done by Plame's outing, the Times claimed that Plame "was by all accounts working under very light cover for the CIA, as evidenced by the fact that numerous neighbors were aware that she worked for the agency."
The Times offered no support for the assertion that "numerous neighbors were aware that she worked for the agency." It made the same baseless assertion in a July 19 editorial: "But in interviews with The Washington Times, most of Plame's neighbors in Northwest Washington said they knew she worked for the CIA."
In fact, a Nexis search* of Washington Times articles from all available dates produced only one article quoting Plame's neighbors. Published July 15, this article quoted only one of Plame's neighbors, a man who, in fact, said he was unaware of Plame's CIA employment:
One neighbor of the Wilsons, who live in the affluent Palisades community in Northwest, said that he "absolutely didn't know" that Mrs. Plame was in the CIA.
"We understood her to work as an economist," said David Tillotson, a 62-year old lawyer. He said he didn't know that Mrs. Plame commuted to CIA headquarters, but added that "they wouldn't be conducting an investigation if she hadn't been covert."
The article quoted no other neighbors, nor did it give any indication that it had conducted further interviews with them.
A second article, published July 25, repeated the unsupported claim from the Times' July 19 editorial: "Several neighbors, when reached by The Washington Times earlier this month did, indeed, know she worked at the CIA." Like the Times' editorials, this article provided no quotations or examples to support its claim.
The July 15 article did, however, quote Fred Rustmann, a former CIA agent who supervised Plame for one year at the beginning of her career. Although there is no indication that Rustmann is one of Plame's neighbors, the Times quoted him claiming that her neighbors did know about her covert CIA status: "Her neighbors knew this, her friends knew this, his [Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C Wilson IV's] friends knew this. A lot of blame could be put on to central cover staff and the agency because they weren't minding the store here. ... The agency never changed her cover status." According to the article, Rustmann "also said that she [Plame] worked under extremely light cover."
A July 5 New York Times article also contradicted The Washington Times' claims about Plame's neighbors' knowledge of her undercover CIA status. The New York Times article quoted David Tillotson, the same neighbor quoted in The Washington Times article, as well as another neighbor, Christopher Wolf::
On June 1, after a year's unpaid leave, Ms. Wilson, now known to the country by her maiden name, Valerie Plame, returned to a new job at the Central Intelligence Agency, determined to get her career back on track, her husband said. Neither the agency nor Mr. Wilson would describe her position, except to make what might seem an obvious point: she will no longer be working under cover, as she did successfully for almost 20 years.
"Before this whole affair, no one would ever have thought of her as an undercover agent," said David Tillotson, a next-door neighbor for seven years who got to know the Wilsons well over back-fence chats, shared dinners and play dates for their grandchildren with the Wilsons' children, Trevor and Samantha.
"She wasn't mysterious," Mr. Tillotson said. "She was sort of a working soccer mom."
He recalled his incredulity on July 14, 2003, when his wife, Victoria, spotted in The Washington Post, in a syndicated column by Robert Novak, a line identifying their neighbor by her maiden name and calling her an "agency operative." Ms. Tillotson kept calling out: "This can't be! This can't be!"
The Wilsons' neighbor on the other side, Christopher Wolf, was similarly aghast. As he sat on his deck staring at the Novak column, Mr. Wilson came out his back door.
"I said: 'This is amazing! I had no idea,"' Mr. Wolf recalled. "He sort of motioned to me to keep my voice down."
On July 25, a day before The Washington Times' most recent claim that Plame's neighbors knew about her undercover work, Wolf wrote an op-ed in USA Today in which he described his "shock" at learning from Novak's column that Plame was a CIA operative:
When I first met Joe and Valerie, I quickly got to the classic Washington question: What do you do? Joe explained that he was a former ambassador to a number of African countries, who had worked in both the Bush I and Clinton administrations.
Valerie's answer was more than a little vague. She quickly said she was a consultant. As a fourth-generation Washingtonian, I have learned that when someone says, "I'm a consultant," that is a cue to back off, as it usually means the person is unemployed or "between engagements."
So, from 1998 to July 14, 2003, we were simply neighbors sharing cookouts. ...
That surprise was nothing compared with the shock I experienced 10 days later. On that sunny Monday morning, I was sitting outside at the table on my deck, having breakfast and reading The Washington Post. When I turned to the op-ed pages, I noticed a column by Novak entitled "Mission to Niger," addressing Joe's op-ed the previous week. I was stunned to read that "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," citing two administration officials as sources.
As I finished reading the column, Joe ventured out onto his deck and offered a neighborly hello. I held up the paper and yelled over, "I had no idea about Valerie!" Joe looked stricken and gestured to me to keep my voice down. I immediately realized the "outing" of Valerie as a covert CIA operative had had a devastating effect on the Wilson family.
The July 26 Washington Times editorial also argued that the Bush administration could not be blamed for blowing Plame's cover because her identity as an undercover CIA agent was compromised twice before it appeared in Novak's column, including once in the mid-1990s by a Moscow spy. But in making this argument, the Times omitted several key facts. First, regardless of whether, as the Times contends, a Russian spy had previously compromised Plame's identity, the CIA was sufficiently concerned about the leak to Novak that it referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation. Second, the State Department clearly still sought to protect Plame's identity in the weeks before Novak's column was published. As The Washington Post reported in a July 20 article, a State Department memo written June 10, 2003, contained a paragraph about Plame that was marked "S" for "secret." And finally The Washington Post reported on October 8, 2003, that Plame remained undercover "in recent years" as an "energy consultant," while actually serving as a weapons proliferation analyst for the CIA. According to the Post, "Friends and neighbors knew Valerie Wilson as a consultant who traveled frequently overseas."
*Nexis search was for (Plame and neighbor!).