An "offhand" comment or an intentional leak?

What did Dick Armitage really tell Bob Novak?

Published September 14, 2006 3:58PM (EDT)

What did Dick Armitage tell Robert Novak about Valerie Plame?

It depends on whom you ask -- and on what day you do the asking.

Armitage, speaking publicly for the first time about his role in outing Plame, told the Washington Post last week that he had divulged Plame's role at the CIA in what the Post called an "offhand" way at the end of a conversation with the columnist. "Novak asked me, 'Hey, why did the CIA send Mr. Wilson to Niger?'" Armitage told the Post. "I said, 'I don't know, but I think his wife worked out there.'"

Novak, in a column out today, says that Armitage is downplaying his degree of certainty about Plame's role as well as his culpability in leaking it. Novak implies that Armitage's agreement to sit down for an interview with him in June 2003 may have been timed to coincide with an effort to debunk Joseph Wilson's claims. Moreover, Novak says that Armitage made it clear that he thought news of Plame's employment at the CIA would be appropriate grist for a newspaper column.

"He had told me unequivocally that Mrs. Wilson worked in the CIA's Counter-Proliferation Division and that she had suggested her husband's mission," Novak writes. "As for his current implications that he never expected this to be published, he noted that the story of Mrs. Wilson's role fit the style of the old Evans-Novak column -- implying to me it continued reporting Washington inside information."

There are parts of Armitage's story that don't add up, but this time it's Novak who has us scratching our heads. If Novak really believes that Armitage was set on getting Plame's name into print, why did Novak describe Armitage's leak originally as nothing more than an "offhand revelation" from someone who wasn't a "partisan gunslinger"?

By Tim Grieve

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

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