by Jim Lobe
Note: Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, is heading a Justice Department probe into the administration leak exposing the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA undercover operative. The information, which was revealed to syndicated columnist Robert Novak (and possibly as many as five other reporters), was designed to discredit her husband, Amb. Joseph Wilson. The former ambassador went public with the information that the White House knew that there was no evidence that Iraq was buying uranium yellowcake from Africa, but still included the claim in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.
Dear Mr. Fitzgerald:
Please forgive my presumptuousness in writing to you, but as a concerned citizen I could not help but notice that the White House has been less than cooperative in your efforts to identify the source of the Plame leak. I think I may have a solution to your problems. His name is Clifford May.
According to the news reports, several key members of the senior White House staff questioned by your investigators have refused to sign waivers that would release reporters, presumably including Mr. Novak, from any promise they made to maintain the secrecy of their sources. It is a serious blow to your efforts since such information could well be critical to the outcome of your investigation. Compelling journalists to disclose their sources in the absence of a waiver is a very sensitive issue which threatens the foundations of a free press. It is the reason why Justice Department attorneys must first show that all other methods of obtaining the essential information have already been exhausted.
Here is a possible way out of this thorny dilemma. There is at least one person who knew of Valerie Plame’s relationship to the CIA even before Novak published his column: Clifford May. He is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-profit organization founded two days after the 9/11 attacks that, in its words, "conducts research and education on the war on terrorism." More importantly, there is no reason why Mr. May should have known about Plame’s CIA credentials, nor did he possess the requisite security clearances to do so. Tracking down the source of his "leak" could well bring us closer to identifying the culprits who gave the same information to the likes of Bob Novak.
Mr. May has not been coy about sharing his knowledge of Plame’s CIA background. On Sept. 29, the same day that the Washington Post confirmed that the CIA had asked for a criminal investigation of Novak’s sources, the National Review Online published a column by Mr. May claiming to be in the know long before Novak blew her cover. "That wasn’t news to me," he wrote. "I had been told that – but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhand manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of." Mr. May later told Fox News the same day that Plame’s identity was "something of an open secret."
Mr. May’s assertions raise some troubling questions. Exactly who were the "insiders" for whom this was "something of an open secret?" How did they obtain this information and why did they pass it on so readily to someone like him?
Mr. May is, of course, a longtime Republican operative. Once the director of communications at the Republican National Committee, he also worked for BSMG Worldwide, one of the world’s largest and most politically connected public and media relations firms, before founding the FDD in 2001. His organization is packed with Republican "insiders." The board of directors includes Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former CIA director R. James Woolsey are on its list of "Distinguished Advisors."
His close relationships with prominent neoconservatives are also hard to miss. FDD’s board of advisers includes the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), Richard Perle; Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney; Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer; and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. So it is no surprise that Mr. May is a major war-booster and White House defender in his own right, or that he would receive advice and help from the same clique of war hawks who lead the campaign for the Iraq war.
Of course, the "insiders" Mr. May referred to in his column need not be members of his own board. But it isn’t unreasonable to view them as likely candidates for that role. Gingrich, Woolsey, and Perle all serve on the DPB and carry high-level security clearances. It is difficult to imagine how or why Plame’s identity would come up in official DPB deliberations, but these three men also have close informal relationships with the offices of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney – the two men who were most annoyed by Wilson’s revelations. Woolsey, Perle and Gaffney also fit the description of "someone who formerly worked in the government."
But why not ask. Mr. May who his informant(s) was? He told me just last week that he had not even been contacted by the FBI or any other investigators about the case. Though I must warn you, as much as Mr. May would like to help, he is reluctant to talk. In his words, "I’m happy to tell anybody what I know, but, in my capacity as a journalist, I would not want to disclose confidential sources."
Now I’m not sure why Mr. May thinks he is entitled to the same constitutional protections as a member of the media. While he did previously work for the New York Times and still writes a column for Scripps-Howard, his primary job is working for a non-profit think-tank. Moreover, he received information about Plame before he became a columnist. In other words, he did not receive the information as a journalist. You can say what you want about Robert Novak (and there are many things to be said), but what distinguishes him from other columnists is that he often provides "news" of public interest and import. Mr. May cannot make the same claim, certainly not under these circumstances.
Moreover, the information was not given to him under any formal agreement of confidentiality, the likes of which exists between a reporter and his source. According to Mr. May’s original account, the remarks were "offhand" and freely volunteered, without any injunctions about their disclosure.
Mr. May and his organization have long expressed great concern about the threats posed by terrorism and nuclear proliferation – indeed that has been FDD’s very raison d’tre. And although he insists that Plame was not working undercover at the time of Novak’s column, he has personally expressed outrage at any attempt to "out" an active covert agent. Given his protestations, he really ought to volunteer to reveal his sources to you.
But rather than wait for him to fulfill his civic duty, I suggest you give Mr. May a call. I suspect that a nice, long chat with Mr. May will make it a lot easier to obtain those White House waivers – that is, if you still need them.
Thank you for your time and consideration, Jim Lobe
Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.