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Novak vs. Armitage: Was the Plame Leak Deliberate?

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For all the HuffPosters who obsess over the Plame affair, here's a posting from my "Capital Games" column at www.thenation.com....

The book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, has set off a dispute between conservative columnist Bob Novak and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

The book--which recounts the behind-the-scenes battles that went on within the CIA, the State Department, Congress and the White House over the administration's case for war before and after the Iraq invasion--discloses that Armitage was the original source for the Novak column of July 14, 2003, which outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction." (The book also reveals that Valerie Wilson was operations chief for the clandestine Joint Task Force on Iraq and oversaw espionage operations aimed at gathering intelligence on Saddam Hussein's supposed WMDs.) Following the book's release, Armitage publicly confessed and apologized to Valerie Wilson and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. He said that the leak had been an inadvertent slip, an act of gossip that came during an interview with Novak about Colin Powell and the State Department. Armitage claimed he had merely told Novak--in an off-the-cuff fashion--"I think his wife works out there," meaning the CIA.

In a column published on Wednesday, Novak accuses Armitage of not telling the truth. The former No. 2 at the State Department, Novak insists, "obscured what he really did." Novak writes:

First, Armitage did not, as he now indicates, merely pass on something he had heard and that he "thought" might be so. Rather, he identified to me the CIA division where Mrs. Wilson worked, and said flatly that she recommended the mission to Niger by her husband, former Amb. Joseph Wilson.

Second, Armitage did not slip me this information as idle chitchat, as he now suggests. He made clear he considered it especially suited for my column.

This account depicts Armitage as deliberately leaking information on Valerie Wilson. In our book, Isikoff and I raise the possibility that Armitage might have told Novak about Wilson's wife and her CIA employment to distance the State Department from the burgeoning Wilson imbroglio--as a way of saying, We here at State had nothing to do with that trouble-causing Wilson trip to Niger. Novak claims that Armitage "told me unequivocally that Mrs. Wilson worked in the CIA's Counter-Proliferation Division and that she had suggested her husband's mission." (Valerie Wilson's role in her husband's mission has been overblown; Isikoff and I lay this out in the book.)

Novak, as he acknowledges, did not take notes of this hour-long conversation, which might strike some reporters as odd, given that he had been endeavoring for years to snag an interview with Armitage. So outsiders are left with a he-said/he-said tussle. But Novak's latest account does seem to contradict an earlier version.

In his recent column, Novak contends that Armitage intentionally passed him information on Wilson and went so far as to suggest the material might be good fodder for a column. Yet in an October 1, 2003 column, Novak said of the leak,

It was an offhand revelation from this [unnamed] official, who is no partisan gunslinger.

"Offhand revelation" doesn't quite cover Novak's (current) depiction of the exchange as a deliberate leak. Novak's October 1, 2003 column--written days after the news broke that the FBI had launched a criminal investigation of the leak that was targeting the White House--seemed intended to downplay the leak as significant or intentional. (That article also stated, "It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.") Novak's recent column, written at a time when White House defenders are trying to dump all the blame on Armitage, claims the leak was purposeful. Which was it?

Novak's current account may well be an accurate recollection. There's no reason to take Armitage's quasi-face-saving version at face-value. But perhaps Novak can explain in yet one more column why he first called the leak an "offhand revelation"?

At the end of his new column, Novak excoriates Armitage:

Armitage's silence the next 2 1/2 years caused intense pain for his colleagues in government and enabled partisan Democrats in Congress to falsely accuse Rove of being my primary source.

Novak neglects to note that Karl Rove was the source he used to confirm the leak he had received from Armitage--and that Rove also leaked classified information on Valerie Wilson to Matt Cooper of Time magazine before the leak appeared in Novak's column. Nor does Novak mention that Scooter Libby leaked information on Valerie Wilson to Judith Miller of The New York Times weeks before Novak entered Armitage's office--and also confirmed Rove's leak to Cooper. (A source close to Rove is quoted in Hubris saying that Rove "probably" learned about Valerie Wilson from Libby.) Like Armitage, Rove and Libby kept silent, even as the White House claimed they were not involved in the leak. Maybe it's time for all leakers to come clean and tell what happened.

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For information on Hubris, click here.