On the October 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, National Review Washington editor Kate O'Beirne, and host Chris Matthews presented false and misleading statements concerning the investigation into the alleged outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame. Mitchell wrongly asserted that Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, claimed that Vice President Dick Cheney "dispatched" him to Niger in 2002 to investigate the alleged sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Matthews stated as fact the disputed claim that Plame "suggested her husband for the mission" to Niger. And O'Beirne confused two statutes that may have been violated when Plame's identity was leaked to the press -- the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act -- and wrongly attacked Wilson's credibility by claiming he was "[n]o expert in weapons of mass destruction."
Mitchell, claiming she wanted to "clear something up," stated that "[t]here had been inaccurate reporting -- some of it came from Wilson's mouth himself -- that he was dispatched by the vice president." Wilson, however, never claimed that Cheney or Cheney's office sent him to Niger. As Media Matters for America has noted, Wilson -- in his July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed and in numerous televised appearances -- claimed he was sent to Niger by the CIA to answer questions from Cheney's office regarding the purported sale of uranium to Iraq. The false claim that Wilson stated or implied that Cheney sent him to Niger (literally a Republican National Committee talking point) is significant to the controversy surrounding the White House's alleged outing of Plame. In an attempt to justify the purported leaking of Plame's identity to the press, the White House claimed that it had a legitimate interest in setting the record straight by disclosing that Plame, not Cheney, was actually responsible for Wilson's being sent to Niger.
Responding to Mitchell's remarks, Matthews commented that "[o]f course Valerie Plame suggested her husband for the mission." But what Matthews presented as fact is a matter very much in dispute. Unnamed intelligence officials have been quoted in the press claiming that the CIA -- not Plame -- selected Wilson for the mission. Also, CIA officials disputed the accuracy of a State Department intelligence memo that reportedly indicates that Plame "suggested" Wilson's name for the trip. Moreover, the Senate Intelligence Committee did not officially conclude that Plame suggested the trip in its 2004 "Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq."
O'Beirne, in an attempt to dismiss the possibility that leaking Plame's identity violated the law, apparently confused the Espionage Act and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) -- two statutes under which special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is reportedly considering seeking indictments. Responding to Matthews's comment that White House officials "could have still broken the law to whack" Wilson, O'Beirne said: "Yes, that underlying Espionage Act is pretty darn hard to break. They could've been unaware ... of what her status was at the CIA." The Espionage Act does not, however, specifically address the identities of covert agents, but instead deals generally with the unlawful distribution of classified information to individuals not authorized to receive it. O'Beirne's comments echo the language of the IIPA, which states that revealing the identity of an undercover agent is illegal only if the leaker was aware of the agent's covert status. Conservatives have questioned whether any law was broken in Plame's outing by claiming that the IIPA sets very high hurdles for prosecution, while apparently ignoring the other laws that may have been violated in the Plame leak. According to the IIPA:
Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent, intentionally discloses any information identifying such covert agent to any individual not authorized to receive classified information, knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States, shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
Also, O'Beirne attempted to undermine Wilson's credibility by claiming he was "[n]o expert in weapons of mass destruction." But as Media Matters noted, it is unclear how a lack of expertise in weapons of mass destruction would prevent Wilson from successfully investigating the reported sale of a commodity such as yellowcake uranium, particularly given that he had taken a similar trip to Niger in 1999 to investigate possible purchases by Iran.
From a discussion with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Matthews, Mitchell, and O'Beirne, on the October 13 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
MITCHELL: Chris, I actually wanted to clear something up, because I was involved in that back then. And, in fact, one of the things that the administration, the Vice President's Office, was trying so desperately to clear up was that Dick Cheney, in his trips to the CIA, did not solicit Joe Wilson to go. There had been inaccurate reporting -- some of it came from Wilson's mouth himself -- that he was dispatched by the vice president. This was clearly the case, according to the Vice President's Office, where the vice president asked a lot of questions about the uranium in Niger. And as a result, he was tasked to go.
MATTHEWS: I acknowledge that that's their defense, but don't we know now the fact that the trip was, in fact, triggered. Of course Valerie Plame suggested her husband for the mission. But the mission was triggered by the inquiry by the vice president, and the vice president was denying that at that time, wasn't he?
MITCHELL: In fact, that's not the case. The trip was triggered by the vice president's inquiries on the part of NSC [National Security Council] and CIA officials who were eager to answer his questions.
MITCHELL: He did not necessarily know that any trip was even under way at the early stages of that trip.
MATTHEWS: Sure, but they --
MITCHELL: That's what they were trying to clear up. That's why they jumped up. And that was probably the original motivation.
MATTHEWS: Because he said there was some kind of a deal going on, and says the only thing Niger has to sell is uranium. It might be that that involved uranium, right?
O`BEIRNE: So given those questions that were raised, people said, well then how did he wind up getting sent, given that he is no expert.
MATTHEWS: Well, he was an expert in African relations. He had been an ambassador in that part of the world, right?
O`BEIRNE: No expert in weapons of mass destruction, and given that his findings, people don't find particularly persuasive, what was he doing over there? And the innocent answer would be, his wife works at the CIA, and she recommended him.
MATTHEWS: Everything you say could be true, and they could have still used -- they could have still broken the law to whack him. That's still possible, too. We will find out.
O`BEIRNE: Yes, that underlying Espionage Act is pretty darn hard to break. They could've been unaware --
MATTHEWS: Is it hard to --
O`BEIRNE: -- of what her status was at the CIA.
MATTHEWS: I understand that if you distribute -- Bob check me, but -- both, of you. But I understand the Espionage Act says if you distribute classified information --
MATTHEWS: -- then it's classified. Even if you get it from somebody else, a reporter, but you know it's classified, you are guilty.