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David Corn

David Corn

Posted: August 27, 2006 10:06 AM

The Meaning of the Armitage Leak News (from the Book I Co-Wrote)


Knowing that many HuffPost bloggers and readers care much about the CIA leak case, I thought you might be interested in the below from my blog at www.davidcorn.com....

One mystery solved.

It was Richard Armitage, when he was deputy secretary of state in July 2003, who first disclosed to conservative columnist Robert Novak that the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson was a CIA employee.

A Newsweek article--based on the new book I cowrote with Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War--discloses that Armitage passed this classified information to Novak during a July 8, 2003 interview. Though Armitage's role as Novak's primary source has been a subject of speculation, the case is now closed. Our sources for this are three government officials who spoke to us confidentially and who had direct knowledge of Armitage's conversation with Novak. Carl Ford Jr., who was head of the State Department's intelligence branch at the time, told us--on the record--that after Armitage testified before the grand jury investigating the leak case, he told Ford, "I'm afraid I may be the guy that caused the whole thing."

Ford recalls Armitage said he had "slipped up" and had told Novak more that he should have. According to Ford, Armitage was upset that "he was the guy that fucked up."

The unnamed government sources also told us about what happened three months later when Novak wrote a column noting that his original source was "no partisan gunslinger." After reading that October 1 column, Armitage called his boss and long-time friend, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and acknowledged he was Novak's source. Powell, Armitage and William Taft IV, the State Department's top lawyer, frantically conferred about what to do. As Taft told us (on the record), "We decided we were going to tell [the investigators] what we thought had happened." Taft notified the criminal division of the Justice Department--which was then handling the investigation--and FBI agents interviewed Armitage the next day. In that interview, Armitage admitted he had told Novak about Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA. The Newsweek piece lays all this out.

Colleagues of Armitage told us that Armitage--who is known to be an inveterate gossip--was only conveying a hot tidbit, not aiming to do Joe Wilson harm. Ford says, "My sense from Rich is that it was just chitchat." (When Armitage testified before the Iran-contra grand jury many years earlier, he had described himself as "a terrible gossip." Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh subsequently accused him of providing "false testimony" to investigators but said that he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Armitage's misstatements had been "deliberate.")

The Plame leak in Novak's column has long been cited by Bush administration critics as a deliberate act of payback, orchestrated to punish and/or discredit Joe Wilson after he charged that the Bush administration had misled the American public about the prewar intelligence. The Armitage news does not fit neatly into that framework. He and Powell were not the leading advocates of war in the administration (even though Powell became the chief pitchman for the case for war when he delivered a high-profile speech at the UN). They were not the political hitmen of the Bush gang. Armitage might have mentioned Wilson's wife merely as gossip. But--as Hubris notes--he also had a bureaucratic interest in passing this information to Novak.

On July 6--two days before Armitage's meeting with Novak--Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times on July 6, 2003, that revealed that he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the charge that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium in that impoverished African nation. Wilson wrote that his mission had been triggered by an inquiry to the CIA from Vice President Dick Cheney, who had read an intelligence report about the Niger allegation, and that he (Wilson) had reported back to the CIA that the charge was highly unlikely. Noting that President George W. Bush had referred to this allegation in his 2003 State of the Union speech, Wilson maintained that the administration had used a phoney claim to lead the country to war. His article ignited a firestorm. That meant that the State Department had good reason (political reason, that is) to distance itself from Wilson, a former State Department official. Armitage may well have referred to Wilson's wife and her CIA connection to make the point that State officials--already suspected by the White House of not being team players--had nothing to do with Wilson and his trip.

Whether he had purposefully mentioned this information to Novak or had slipped up, Armitage got the ball rolling--and abetted a White House campaign under way to undermine Wilson. At the time, top White House aides--including Karl Rove and Scooter Libby--were trying to do in Wilson. And they saw his wife's position at the CIA as a piece of ammunition. As John Dickerson wrote in Slate, senior White House aides that week were encouraging him to investigate who had sent Joe Wilson on his trip. They did not tell him they believed Wilson's wife had been involved. But they clearly were trying to push him toward that information.

Shortly after Novak spoke with Armitage, he told Rove that he had heard that Valerie Wilson had been behind her husband's trip to Niger, and Rove said that he knew that, too. So a leak from Armitage (a war skeptic not bent on revenge against Wilson) was confirmed by Rove (a Bush defender trying to take down Wilson). And days later--before the Novak column came out--Rove told Time magazine's Matt Cooper that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee and involved in his trip.

Bush critics have long depicted the Plame leak as a sign of White House thuggery. I happened to be the first journalist to report that the leak in the Novak column might be evidence of a White House crime--a violation of the little-known Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime for a government official to disclose information about an undercover CIA officer (if that government official knew the covert officer was undercover and had obtained information about the officer through official channels). Two days after the leak appeared, I wrote:

Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security--and break the law--in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others?

And I stated,

Now there is evidence Bushies used classified information and put the nation's counter-proliferation efforts at risk merely to settle a score.

The Armitage leak was not directly a part of the White House's fierce anti-Wilson crusade. But as Hubris notes, it was, in a way, linked to the White House effort, for Amitage had been sent a key memo about Wilson's trip that referred to his wife and her CIA connection, and this memo had been written, according to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, at the request of I. Lewis Scooter Libby, the vice president's chief of staff. Libby had asked for the memo because he was looking to protect his boss from the mounting criticism that Bush and Cheney had misrepresented the WMD intelligence to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq.

The memo included information on Valerie Wilson's role in a meeting at the CIA that led to her husband's trip. This critical memo was--as Hubris discloses--based on notes that were not accurate. (You're going to have to read the book for more on this.) But because of Libby's request, a memo did circulate among State Department officials, including Armitage, that briefly mentioned Wilson's wife.

Armitage's role aside, the public record is without question: senior White House aides wanted to use Valerie Wilson's CIA employment against her husband. Rove leaked the information to Cooper, and Libby confirmed Rove's leak to Cooper. Libby also disclosed information on Wilson's wife to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

As Hubris also reveals--and is reported in the Newsweek story--Armitage was also the source who told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in mid-June 2003 that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Woodward did not reveal he had learned about Wilson's wife until last November, when he released a statement recounting a conversation with a source (whom he did not name). Woodward acknowledged at that time that he had not told his editors about this interview--and that he had recently given a deposition to Fitzgerald about this conversation.

Speculation regarding Woodward's source quickly focused on Armitage. Last week, the Associated Press disclosed State Department records indicating that Woodward had met with Armitage at the State Department on June 13, 2003. In pegging Armitage as Woodward's source, Hubris cites five confidential sources--including government officials and an Armitage confidant.

Woodward came in for some harsh criticism when he and the Post revealed that he had been the first reporter told about Wilson's wife by a Bush administration official. During Fitzgerald's investigation, Woodward had repeatedly appeared on television and radio talk shows and dismissed the CIA leak probe without noting that he had a keen personal interest in the matter: his good source, Richard Armitage, was likely a target of Fitzgerald. Woodward was under no obligation to disclose a confidential source and what that source had told him. But he also was under no obligation to go on television and criticize an investigation while withholding relevant information about his involvement in the affair.

Fitzgerald, as Hubris notes, investigated Armitage twice--once for the Novak leak; then again for not initially telling investigators about his conversation with Woodward. Each time, Fitzgerald decided not to prosecute Armitage. Abiding by the rules governing grand jury investigations, Fitzgerald said nothing publicly about Armitage's role in the leak.

The outing of Armitage does change the contours of the leak case. The initial leaker was not plotting vengeance. He and Powell had not been gung-ho supporters of the war. Yet Bush backers cannot claim the leak was merely an innocent slip. Rove confirmed the classified information to Novak and then leaked it himself as part of an effort to undermine a White House critic. Afterward, the White House falsely insisted that neither Rove nor Libby had been involved in the leak and vowed that anyone who had participated in it would be bounced from the administration. Yet when Isikoff and Newsweek in July 2005 revealed a Matt Cooper email showing that Rove had leaked to Cooper, the White House refused to acknowledge this damning evidence, declined to comment on the case, and did not dismiss Rove. To date, the president has not addressed Rove's role in the leak. It remains a story of ugly and unethical politics, stonewalling, and lies.

A NOTE OF SELF-PROMOTION: Hubris covers much more than the leak case. It reveals behind-the-scene battles at the White House, the CIA, the State Department, and Capitol Hill that occurred in the year before the invasion of Iraq. It discloses secrets about the CIA's prewar plans for Iraq. It chronicles how Bush and Cheney reacted to the failure to find WMDs in Iraq. It details how Bush and other aides neglected serious planning for the post-invasion period. It recounts how the unproven theories of a little-known academic who was convinced Saddam Hussein was behind all acts of terrorism throughout the world influenced Bush administration officials. It reports what went wrong inside The New York Times regarding its prewar coverage of Iraq's WMDs. It shows precisely how the intelligence agencies screwed up and how the Bush administration misused the faulty and flimsy (and fraudulent) intelligence. The book, a narrative of insider intrigue, also relates episodes in which intelligence analysts and experts made the right calls about Iraq's WMDs but lost the turf battles.

And there's more, including:

* how and why the CIA blew the call on the Niger forgeries

* why US intelligence officials suspected Iranian intelligence was trying to influence US decisionmaking through the Iraqi National Congress

* why members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who doubted the case for war were afraid to challenge the prewar intelligence

* how Cheney and his aides sifted through raw intelligence desperately trying to find evidence to justify the Iraq invasion

* how Karl Rove barely managed to escape indictment with a shaky argument.

And there's more beyond that. In other words, this is not a book on the leak case. It includes the leak episode because the leak came about partly due to the White House need to keep its disingenuous sales campaign going after the invasion. Feel free to see for yourself. The book goes on sale September 8. Its Amazon.com page can be found here.