Misleading Washington Post headline on Plame

Perhaps an attempt to reignite the media firestorm over Karl Rove, a front page story in Thursday's Washington Post based on a secret June 2003 State Department memo "central" to the Valerie Plame leak investigation and leaked to staff writers Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei was given a misleading headline which prompts readers into thinking Valerie Plame's was widely known in the Bush administration as that of a covert CIA agent. For a government official such as Karl Rove to knowingly reveal the name of a covert agent is the crime which lies at the heart of the grand jury inquiry into the matter, and at the heart of liberal media interest in the story. A slightly more accurate but still misleading headline was posted on the Post's home page, though not the actual Web version of the article, which correctly notes that the memo was marked secret, not Plame's name.

The article co-written by staff writers Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei was headlined in both print and Web versions of the story as: "Plame's Identity Marked As Secret: Memo Central to Probe Of Leak Was Written By State Dept. Analyst."

This "central" memo, however, is one which Pincus and VandeHei admit seven paragraphs into the story barely mentioned Valerie Wilson:

Almost all of the memo is devoted to describing why State Department intelligence experts did not believe claims that Saddam Hussein had in the recent past sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Only two sentences in the seven-sentence paragraph mention Wilson's wife.

The memo was delivered to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on July 7, 2003, as he headed to Africa for a trip with President Bush aboard Air Force One. Plame was unmasked in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak seven days later.

Furthermore, earlier in the story, Pincus and VandeHei stress that their confidential sources stressed that it is not clear that the secret memo conveyed that Valerie Wilson was herself a covert operative whose identity was a crime to reveal. In fact, in context it is much more likely that the findings of the memo itself alone were considered secret:

The paragraph identifying her as the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was clearly marked to show that it contained classified material at the "secret" level, two sources said. The CIA classifies as "secret" the names of officers whose identities are covert, according to former senior agency officials.

Anyone reading that paragraph should have been aware that it contained secret information, though that designation was not specifically attached to Plame's name and did not describe her status as covert, the sources said. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a federal official to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert CIA official if the person knows the government is trying to keep it secret.


A different, less misleading but still inaccurate headline graced the home page of the Post at the time this blog entry was published: "Memo on Plame Was Secret: Anyone who read the document should have been aware information was classified, say officials."

The memo's contents were secret, but the memo wasn't about Plame.

Nice try, guys.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters