Richard Armitage, Valerie Plame and the questions that remain

A new report says the former deputy secretary of state leaked Plame's identity to Robert Novak and Bob Woodward.

Published August 28, 2006 1:41PM (EDT)

The money question in Plamegate -- or one of them, anyway -- found an answer over the weekend with a sort of head-scratching thud: The "senior administration official" who leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Robert Novak was former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and the Nation's David Corn write in their soon-to-be-published book, "Hubris," that Armitage told Novak on July 8, 2003, that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA officer. That would be two days after Wilson's Op-Ed piece appeared in the New York Times and just before Karl Rove confirmed Plame's identity for Novak.

We've always been skeptical of the idea that Armitage was Novak's first source; as Corn writes, the revelation "doesn't fit neatly" into the frame through which many of us view Plame's outing. Armitage and his boss, Colin Powell, weren't part of Dick Cheney's neocon cabal, weren't particularly enthusiastic about the war in Iraq, and weren't, as Corn puts it, "the political hitmen of the Bush group."

So why did Armitage leak to Novak? Isikoff seems to buy into the theory that the leak was an inadvertent slip by a notorious gossip. "I'm afraid I may be the guy that caused this whole thing," Isikoff says Armitage later told Carl Ford Jr., who ran the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. As Isikoff explains, "Ford says Armitage admitted to him that he had 'slipped up' and told Novak more than he should have. 'He was basically beside himself that he was the guy that f---ed up. My sense from Rich is that it was just chitchat,' Ford said."

But Corn suggests that Armitage may have had some "bureaucratic" incentive for suggesting to Novak that Plame was involved in her husband's trip to Niger. Wilson's column was causing a "firestorm" at the White House, so it might have been in the State Department's political interest to put some distance between itself and its former ambassador. "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," Corn writes.

And while both Isikoff and Corn seem to accept the notion that Armitage's leak wasn't part of Dick Cheney's plan to "get the truth out" about Wilson's criticisms, they say it wasn't entirely unrelated to the Cheney-Scooter Libby-Rove effort, either. Armitage may have learned of Plame's identity -- and her supposed role in her husband's trip to Niger -- from a memo on the trip written at Libby's request, Corn says.

We're inclined to believe that Armitage wasn't part of the Cheney-Libby-Rove conspiracy. We're also inclined to believe that Armitage didn't commit any crime. Corn and Isikoff say that Patrick Fitzgerald has decided not to prosecute Armitage, possibly because he accepts Armitage's claim that he didn't know Plame was a covert operative. And as far as we know, there's no evidence that Armitage -- unlike, say, Libby or Rove -- misled the federal investigators or Fitzgerald's grand jury.

But there are still parts of the Armitage story that don't add up entirely, at least not yet. Why didn't Armitage come forward a long time ago? Why didn't he tell Powell of his role until Oct. 1, 2003? Isikoff and Corn say Amitage figured out that he was Novak's source after reading a follow-up piece from the columnist the day before. But something else happened the day before, too: As the Booman Tribune notes, that was also the day that George W. Bush said he'd "take the appropriate action" against anyone who leaked Plame's identity. Is it possible that Bush's threat, as hollow as it turned out to be, focused Armitage's mind on the fact that he was the leaker? And if Armitage's disclosure to Novak was just a "slip," then how is it that he made the same disclosure to Bob Woodward earlier?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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