WASHINGTON -- Seated at the Washington Gridiron dinner March 31, I was interrupted by a man crouching at my feet who was dressed Air Force formal with the four stars of a full general. It was CIA Director Michael Hayden, who complained to me profanely that my column had misrepresented him in the Valerie Plame Wilson case. Denying he favors Democrats, Gen. Hayden indicated to me he had not authorized Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman to say Mrs. Wilson had been a "covert" CIA employee, as he claimed Hayden did, but only that she was "undercover."
Keeping busy at a Gridiron evening supposedly devoted to frivolity, Hayden made similar points with Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Republican; Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing, expert in national security law; and White House Counsel Fred Fielding. Yet, 10 days later, the CIA and its director asserted to me that the wife of Bush critic Joseph Wilson indeed had been "covert." The designation could strengthen erroneous claims that she came under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
Nobody ever will be prosecuted under the act for revealing Mrs. Wilson worked for the CIA. But Hayden has raised Republican suspicions that he is angling to become intelligence czar -- director of national intelligence -- under a Democratic president. While Hayden proclaims himself free of politics, his handling of the Valerie Plame case is puzzling.
Waxman, as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, sought to breathe political life into the affair with a March 16 hearing featuring Mrs. Wilson. Waxman made news by declaring Hayden "told me personally . . . that if I said, she was a covert agent, it wouldn't be an incorrect statement." I reported that this revelation stunned Hoekstra, who as Intelligence Committee chairman spent years unsuccessfully seeking Mrs. Wilson's status from the CIA.
At the Gridiron, I heard Hayden tell me he actually referred to Mrs. Wilson only as "undercover." He apparently said the same thing to Toensing, who testified as a Republican-requested witness at the March 16 hearing. On April 4, she wrote Hayden that in three Gridiron conversations "in front of different witnesses you denied most emphatically, that you had ever told" Waxman "that Valerie Plame was 'covert.' You stated you had told Waxman he could use the term 'undercover' but 'never' the term 'covert.'"
That contradiction concerned Toensing, a former Senate staffer who helped draft the 1982 Intelligence Identities Act. At the hearing, Waxman menacingly challenged Toensing's sworn testimony that Mrs. Wilson was not "covert" under the act. Accordingly, she asked Hayden to inform Waxman "you never approved of his using the term 'covert.'"
The confusion deepened when I obtained Waxman's talking points for the hearing. The draft typed after the Hayden-Waxman conversation said, "Ms. Wilson had a career as an undercover agent of the CIA." This was crossed out, the hand-printed change saying she "was a covert employee of the CIA."
Who had made this questionable but important change? Hayden told me Tuesday that the talking points were edited by a CIA lawyer after conferring with Waxman's staff. "I am completely comfortable with that," the general assured me. He added he now sees no difference between "covert" and "undercover" -- an astounding statement, considering that the criminal statute refers only to "covert" employees.
Mark Mansfield, Hayden's public affairs officer, next e-mailed me: "At CIA, you are either a covert or an overt employee. Ms. Wilson was a covert employee." That also ignores the legal requirements of the Intelligence Identities Act.
The CIA gave me a lot more than either Toensing or Hoekstra received. Toensing's letter to Hayden has gone unanswered. On March 21, Hoekstra again requested the CIA to define Mrs. Wilson's status. A written reply April 5 from Christopher J. Walker, the CIA's director of congressional affairs, said only that "it is taking longer than expected" to reply because of "the considerable legal complexity required for this tasking."
Mike Hayden was brought into the CIA as an intelligence professional when President Bush fired Porter Goss, who had retired from Congress to go to Langley at the president's request. Goss thought he had a mandate to clean up an agency whose senior officials delivered private anti-Bush briefings during the 2004 campaign. The confusion over Valerie Plame's status suggests the CIA gave Waxman what he wanted, even if the director of central intelligence seemed confused.