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The Waxman Hearing

(Photo credit Pachacutec) 

Two quick impresions: When Valerie Wilson came into the hearing room, there were so many camera shutters going off, it sounded like the wings of a butterfly. It kind of enhanced her ethereal presence. But then when Elijah Cummings asked Valerie about Victoria Toensing, I imagine we saw the side of Valerie that–as Jim Marcinkowski once reported–made her the best person at handling an AK-47 in her CIA class. Man, I wish I had an AK-47 face like that!

Jane and Christy and Pach said so much Friday about individual aspects of the Waxman hearing, I thought I’d focus my recap on the way the hearing came off as a totality. Waxman structured the hearing very effectively so that it accomplished several goals. Effectively, the hearing laid out the problem—Valerie Wilson, whose career was ruined out of vindictive spite. It laid out the legally required solution–an Administrative investigation, even while establishing that solution had not been accomplished. And then it explored the legal realities surrounding leaked classified information (which is a polite way of saying it exposed Victoria Toensing for what she is). I’m going to look at each panel, but first let me say a word about the timing. 

The Timing

I was skeptical, at first, about a Friday hearing. Democrats have ended the Republican practice of 2.5 day work weeks. But Congressmen do need to be home in their districts on weekends for constituent services. Which means if you’re going to hold a 4 hour hearing on a Friday, you’re really asking your members to jump through hoops to attend the meeting. And Waxman got that commitment from enough of his members to make it an effective hearing. Whereas Davis couldn’t persuade enough Republicans to attend even to give him a chance to launch his bid at closing the hearing. 

The result reminded me of the rump hearing the Democrats had on the intelligence leading to the Iraq War—for most of the hearing, Tom Davis was the only Republican present. With cameos, of course, from Congressman Westmoreland so he could leer at Valerie. In truth, the Republicans were most consistently represented by a never-named attorney, a tall guy who sat right next to Davis in Congressman Dan Burton's seat. The lawyer had a look of “oh shit” on his face for the better part of the hearing and he kept swallowing his lips when he thought. For much of the hearing, Davis and GOP Counsel were sitting there, huddled with two aides, which really added to the look of desperation. And by the end, for most of Victoria Toensing’s appearance, the only one (aside from a few aides) sitting on the Republican side was GOP Counsel. That’s what they’ve come to—sending their lawyer in their stead, to protect them from the oversight they’re supposed to be exercising.


In many ways, Valerie was the simplest part of this Hearing. While Davis and the Leering Westmoreland tried to take their potshots at Valerie, every attempt just made the Republicans look worse. “Don’t you understand, Leering Westmoreland, my cover was blown several months before Vanity Fair took my picture!?” After which GOP Counsel and Davis would huddle and try to think of some other clever comeback that Valerie could swat down.

Otherwise, though, the message was simple, stated once by Waxman and repeated, over and over, by Valerie. Valerie Wilson was covert. And those who outed her are—in the words of Poppy Bush—the most insidious of traitors.

Don’t get me wrong. Valerie was brilliant. Maybe that’s not even the word. She had the calm of someone who can finally speak the truth. Powerful. 

Leonard and Knodell

The truly great part of the hearing was the pairing of Bill Leonard and James Knodell. Because Waxman and Hodes and the rest of the committee grilled Knodell, but they did so using the standards Leonard established. Leonard's one of those stiff law and order types, so it framed Knodell as breaking Leonard's laws, not Knodell's. It was like a game of tennis which the Administration lost, badly. Mr. Leonard, what should happen when there is an unauthorized leak of classified information? Mr. Knodell, did that happen? Mr. Leonard? Mr. Knodell?

And, as we now know, between July 24, when the CIA first voices its concerns about the leak, and September 16, when DOJ finally decided to launch a criminal investigation, the White House did not conduct the Administrative investigation that is required by law in cases of unauthorized leaks of classified information. 

WAXMAN: Will the gentleman yield to me…

CUMMINGS: Of course.

WAXMAN: … because I just want to pin this point down? Do you know whether there was an investigation at the White House after the leaks came out?

KNODELL: I don’t have any knowledge of an investigation within my office.


KNODELL: I do not.

WAXMAN: Because the president said he was investigating this matter and was going to get the bottom of it. You’re not aware that any investigation took place?

KNODELL: Not within my office, sir.

Now, let me explain, for those who have been confused by Toensing's perma-headfake. This hearing was not about the IIPA statute. This hearing was about the illegal leaking of classified information. No matter how you parse words about Valerie's travels overseas, the White House was still obliged to launch an Administrative investigation when it learned of the leak–in July 2003, two months before the start of the criminal investigation. It did not do so. Period.

Toensing and Zaid

Once again, this was supposed to be a tennis match: Mr. Zaid, what has happened to your clients who have leaked classified information. Ms. Toensing, now do you see why people in the Administration who leaked classified information should have lost their security clearance? Only Toensing forgot anyone was sitting next to her, and answered almost every question asked, whether directed to her or not.

But apparently Toensing didn't read the memo. No, seriously, she didn't. She had to be reminded that her invite letter specified that the hearing was about the unauthorized leak of classified information, not about the IIPA. But on and on she'd go, babbling about the IIPA–and do you want to hear her stories about Goldwater? By the end, Elijah Cummings made a very heartfelt comment–on the importance of remembering the issues, that a CIA officer protecting us from WMD had been outed. Toensing didn't really have a response to that. Which was, IMO, the most effective moment in Toensing's testimony. Because really, even she doesn't have a good response to the deliberate outing of a CIA officer.

Anyway, as I said, none of the Republicans thought Toensing's testimony sufficiently important to sit through all of it–and remember, she was their gal. Apparently, only GOP Counsel felt it worthwhile (or perhaps was required) to sit through her blathering. 

The most striking part of her testimony, though, was the laughter. Not only me, though I was laughing. at times. But some of the good objective journalists sitting around me. And–honest to betsy–there were two Republican aides who were openly laughing at her. I guess they figured that–since the members had already left–they were free to express their real opinion of Toensing.

Finally, I know Jane promised a smackdown and summary of the inaccuracies Toensing used in her testimony. I think when Waxman referred to these he meant they were inaccuracies rather than full-blown perjury (though, just to be sure, Toensing might want to issue a retraction of some of them). I think, quite honestly, Toensing just forgot that she often, um, exaggerates when she's on TV, and that as a result, some of the stuff that falls out of her mouth like blobs of chewing gum actually isn't true.  I'm going to wait until I get the (still-open) Congressional Record to do the smackdown, so I'm working with exactly what she said. But there were three, in particular, that stick out in my mind: the claim the INR memo "proved" Valerie sent or suggested Joe, the claim that Grenier told Libby about "Valerie Plame," and the claim that Joe said the Vice President sent him to Niger. The public record doesn't support any of those assertions–yet Toensing offered those as "facts" "she knew." It doesn't reflect well, on Toensing, that in the same appearance where she spouted a number of "facts" "she knew" about the IIPA, she also contradicted the public record on a number of issues she claims "to know." But I guess none of us should be surprised.

The Totality

Which leaves us, two days later, to reflect on what the Hearing accomplished. Importantly, Waxman gave Valerie Wilson an opportunity to correct, under oath, many of the fictions the right has propagated about her in the last four years. Just as importantly, the Hearing served to remind us (as Patrick Fitzgerald did in his closing statements) that Valerie Wilson is a person, not an argument. Not only does she have kids and a husband. But she used to have an important role in protecting our country from the proliferation of nuclear weapons. She served our country, and the gratitude our country showed her was to expose her, her family, her colleagues, and the assets she recruited to a great deal of danger.

But the hearing also did one more thing. It established uncontrovertibly that the White House did not follow statutes governing the unauthorized release of classified information. Regardless of what happens with the other materials Fitzgerald collected during his investigation, establishing that fact gives Waxman the ability to pursue more information. It took a matter of hours for Waxman to take the next step–asking Josh Bolten for a full accounting.

To assist the Committee in its investigation into these issues, I request that you provide the Committee with a complete account of the steps that the White House took following the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity (1) to investigate how the leak occurred; (2) to review the security clearances of the White House officials implicated in the leak; (3) to impose administrative or disciplinary sanctions on the officials involved in the leak; and (4) to review and revise existing White House security procedures to prevent future breaches of national security.

Waxman established the groundwork for further investigation. Given his tenaciousness, given the fact that Waxman already used the threat of a subpoena to "encourage" Knodell to appear, I fully expect this investigation will continue. That's what the Hearing established–the basis for further investigation. 

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Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.