WASHINGTON -- Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra could hardly believe what he heard last Friday on television as he watched a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Rep. Henry Waxman, the Democratic committee chairman, said his statement had been approved by the CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden. That included the assertion that Valerie Plame Wilson was a covert CIA operative when her identity was revealed.
As House Intelligence Committee chairman when Republicans still controlled Congress, Hoekstra had tried repeatedly to learn Plame's status from the CIA but got only double talk from Langley. Waxman, the 67-year-old, 17-term congressman from Beverly Hills, may be a bully and a partisan. But he is no fool who would misrepresent the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Waxman was correctly quoting Hayden. But Hayden, in a conference with Hoekstra Wednesday, still did not answer whether Plame was covert under the terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
The former CIA employee's status is critical to the attempted political rehabilitation of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife. The Democratic target always has been Karl Rove, President Bush's principal adviser. The purpose of last week's hearing was to blame Rove for "outing" Plame, in preparation for revoking his security clearance.
Claims of a White House plot became so discredited that Wilson was cut out of John Kerry's presidential campaign by the summer of 2004. Last week's hearing attempted to revive a dormant issue. The glamorous Mrs. Wilson was depicted as the victim of White House machinations that aborted her career in secret intelligence.
Waxman and Democratic colleagues did not ask these pertinent questions: Had not Plame been outed years ago by a Soviet agent? Was she not on an administrative, not operational, track at Langley? How could she be covert if, in public view, she drove to work each day at Langley? What about comments to me by then CIA spokesman Bill Harlow that Plame never would be given another foreign assignment? What about testimony to the FBI that her CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington?
Instead of posing such questions, Waxman said flatly that Plame was covert, and cited Hayden as proof. The DCI's endorsement of Waxman's statement astounded Republicans whose queries about her had been rebuffed by the Agency. That confirmed Republican suspicions that Hayden is too close to Democrats.
These issues were not explored by the only two Republicans who showed up at last week's hearing. Rep. Tom Davis, the committee's ranking Republican and former chairman, is a skilled legislator but not prone to roughhouse with Waxman. Unwilling to challenge Plame's covert status, Davis blamed the CIA instead of the White House for her alleged exposure. The other Republican present -- Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a second-termer from metro Atlanta -- seemed awed by the beautiful woman facing him. "If I seem a little nervous," he began, "I've never questioned a spy before."
Davis had e-mailed the committee's other Republicans requesting their presence. Where were they? I asked Rep. Christopher Shays, who during nine previous terms in Congress had proved a tenacious questioner at hearings. "We felt the committee is so biased," he replied, "we would do better to just stay away."
That decision left the field last Friday to such partisan Democrats as Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Diane Watson, Waxman's fellow Californian, mimicked the chairman's inquisitorial style. She repeatedly interrupted lawyer Victoria Toensing, the lone rebuttal witness granted the Republicans by Waxman.
Toensing testified that Plame was not a covert operative as defined by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (which she had helped draft as a Senate staffer in 1982) if only because she was not stationed overseas for the CIA the past five years. Waxman hectored Toensing, menacingly warning that her sworn testimony would be scrutinized for misstatements.
Waxman relied on his support from Gen. Hayden. When the DCI's role was pointed out to one of the president's most important aides, there was no response. The White House from the start has treated the Plame leak as a criminal case not to be commented on. The Democrats still consider it a political blunderbuss, aimed at Karl Rove and his boss.