WASHINGTON - Valerie Plame put a glamorous face and a personal story to Democrats' criticism of the Bush administration Friday, telling a House committee that White House and State Department officials "carelessly and recklessly" blew her CIA cover in a politically motivated smear of her husband.
Plame, the operative at the center of the leak scandal that resulted in last week's criminal conviction of a former top White House official, created more of a stir by her presence on Capitol Hill than by her testimony.
She revealed little new information about the case, which sparked a federal investigation and brought perjury and obstruction of justice convictions of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. No one has been charged with leaking her identity.
Still, Plame's appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was a moment of political theater that dramatized Democrats' drive to use their control of Congress to expose what they see as White House efforts to intimidate dissenters.
"My name and identity were carelessly and recklessly abused by senior officials in the White House and State Department," Plame testified in her first public comments about the case. "I could no longer perform the work for which I had been highly trained."
Under questioning, Plame recounted feeling "like I had been hit in the gut" on the July 2003 morning when she saw a newspaper story by syndicated columnist Robert Novak identifying her.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the panel's chairman, called Plame a victim in a White House drive to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for publicly disputing President Bush's assertion that Saddam Hussein was on the brink of acquiring a nuclear bomb.
"I find that troubling, that in the zeal for their political positioning that there (is) a lot of collateral damage around, including a war that didn't have to be fought," Waxman said.
News cameras whirred and spectators craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Plame as the blond former operative took her place alone at the witness table for her 90 minutes of testimony.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the committee's senior Republican, called the session a partisan hearing that would do little to illuminate how Plame's identity came to be exposed or how such disclosures could be prevented.
"It's a terrible thing that any CIA operative would be outed," Davis said. But "there's no evidence here that the people that were outing this and pursuing this had knowledge of the covert status."
Plame repeatedly described herself as a covert operative, a term that has multiple meanings. Plame said she worked undercover and traveled abroad on secret missions for the CIA.
But the word "covert" also has a legal definition requiring recent foreign service by the person and active efforts to keep his or her identity secret. Critics of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation said Plame did not meet that definition for several reasons and that was why nobody was charged with the leak.
"No process can be adopted to protect classified information that no one knows is classified. This looks to me more like a CIA problem than a White House problem," Davis said.
Plame said she wasn't a lawyer and didn't know her legal status, but said it shouldn't have mattered to the officials who learned her identity.
"They all knew that I worked with the CIA," Plame said. "They might not have known what my status was but that alone - the fact that I worked for the CIA - should have put up a red flag."
Plame said she did not select her husband for a CIA fact-finding trip to Niger. Wilson later wrote in a newspaper column that his trip debunked the administration's prewar intelligence that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Africa.
"I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority," she said.
That conflicts with senior officials at the CIA and State Department, who testified during Libby's trial and told Congress that Plame recommended Wilson for the trip.
Prosecutor Fitzgerald, was not on the hearing's witness list. He told lawmakers Wednesday that federal law prohibited him from offering his thoughts on the case.
Nobody from the White House involved in the leak was scheduled to testify. Neither were officials from the State Department, where the first disclosure of Plame's identity occurred, or the CIA.
James Knodell, director of the White House security office, did testify that there had been no internal investigation into the leak, and no disciplinary action against those involved.
Later Friday, Waxman released a letter to White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten in which he requested "a complete account" of the steps the White House took after the disclosure of Plame's identity.
The hearing, "raised new concerns about whether the security practices being followed by the White House are sufficient to protect our nation's most sensitive secrets," Waxman wrote.
Columnist Novak has said that former Deputy State Department Secretary Richard Armitage first revealed Plame's job to him and Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and CIA spokesman Bill Harlow confirmed it.
Wilson has written a book, and Plame is working on one, "Fair Game." Plame's book is subject to a mandatory review by the CIA. On Thursday, Simon & Schuster spokesman Adam Rothberg would say only that the book was "in progress" and that publication was expected soon.
Friday's hearing showed the intense interest in Plame, who drew autograph-seekers and camera-toting congressional aides to a hearing on an otherwise quiet morning. Even a member of Congress confessed to being a bit star-struck. "If I seem a little nervous, I've never questioned a spy before," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. said. "I was here during the steroid hearings, too, and I don't think any of those baseball stars got this kind of media attention that you're getting today." AP-CS-03-16-07 1744EDTcomments powered by Disqus