The Armitage Red Herring

The right wants you to believe the Plame scandal is over. It isn't.

| Mon Sep. 4, 2006 3:00 AM EDT
If you believe the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page, the conservative wing of the blogosphere, or any number of right-wing commentators, the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame has amounted to a non-scandal, a conspiracy theory drummed up for political ends by the left. This owes to the recent disclosure in Newsweek that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the initial and primary source for the now infamous column by Robert Novak that touched off the controversy. Plugging “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War,” a soon-to-be-released book co-authored by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and The Nation's David Corn (who was the first to raise the question of whether the Plame leak broke the law), the magazine reported that Armitage, who has a reputation as a gossip, may have inadvertently leaked Plame’s identity to Novak in the course of making chit chat.

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In the Journal's interpretation, one shared by like-minded ideologues, this means that: “… the leaker wasn't Karl Rove or Scooter Libby or anyone else in the White House who has been accused of running a conspiracy against Ms. Plame as revenge for her husband Joe Wilson's false accusations against the White House's case for war with Iraq. So what have the last three years been all about anyway? Political opportunism and internal score-settling, among other things.” Not quite. The very significant news about Armitage’s role in all of this is but one strand in a many-tentacled scandal that has led, among other places, to the office of the Vice President and to the President himself. Attempts to portray this news otherwise are just the latest effort by the right to mute the scandal, which has included questioning whether Plame was really covert and not just a Langley office hand.

Corn, for his part, seems somewhat amused that his reporting has been held up to vindicate those who believe the Plame leak was not the act of political retaliation it certainly appears to have been. “White House defenders are chortling,” he writes on his blog. “For some reason, they believe that the news from ‘Hubris’ that Richard Armitage was the original leaker means there was nothing to the CIA leak case.” He goes on to say that the body of evidence that has been unearthed over the years disputes this fact. “Rove's leak (to Robert Novak and Matt Cooper) and Libby's leak (to Judith Miller and Cooper) were part of a campaign to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson. That's no conspiracy theory.”

In the spring of 2003, as details emerged about a then-unnamed former ambassador who had traveled to Niger to investigate reports that Iraq had sought to buy yellow cake uranium from the African nation and found the claims meritless, there was clearly an unhealthy fixation on Wilson and his wife within the White House — and an effort to run damage control to salvage one of the administration’s key assertions about Iraq’s pursuit of WMDs. The facts are clear: On June 12, 2003, more than a month before Novak's column, Libby learned of Plame’s identity in a conversation with the vice president. Authorized by the president himself to disclose part of the highly classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in order to defend the administration’s position on Iraq, Libby met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller later that month. According to Libby’s indictment, at least part of their conversation centered on Wilson's Niger trip and Libby suggested to Miller that Wilson’s wife might work for the CIA. When Libby and Miller met again on July 8, they again discussed Wilson’s trip and, possibly to cover his tracks, Libby asked that his comments be attributed to “a former Hill staffer” instead of a “senior administration official.” During this conversation, according to the indictment, Libby was critical of the CIA’s report on the fact-finding mission and again “advised Miller of his belief that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.” Three days later, Karl Rove spoke with Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, telling him not to “get too far out on Wilson” and that the Niger trip had been authorized by “Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on WMD issues” – (actually, the trip had been authorized by the CIA, though Plame had suggested her husband, who had contacts in the region, for the job). The following day, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, spoke with an administration official who, using similar talking points, also sought to play down the significance of the Niger trip, telling him “that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction.” Meanwhile, during this timeframe, the Post has reported that “two top white house officials contacted at least six reporters and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife.”

And that just scratches the surface. Now that Armitage’s long-suspected role in the leak has been clarified, one chapter in this convoluted saga has closed. But there’s more to the story.

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