The Man Who Said Too Much

A book coauthored by NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff details Richard Armitage's central role in the Valerie Plame leak.
By Michael Isikoff
Newsweek


Updated: 12:35 a.m. ET Aug 27, 2006
Sept. 4, 2006 issue - In the early morning of Oct. 1, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell received an urgent phone call from his No. 2 at the State Department. Richard Armitage was clearly agitated. As recounted in a new book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," Armitage had been at home reading the newspaper and had come across a column by journalist Robert Novak. Months earlier, Novak had caused a huge stir when he revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq-war critic Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. Ever since, Washington had been trying to find out who leaked the information to Novak. The columnist himself had kept quiet. But now, in a second column, Novak provided a tantalizing clue: his primary source, he wrote, was a "senior administration official" who was "not a partisan gunslinger." Armitage was shaken. After reading the column, he knew immediately who the leaker was. On the phone with Powell that morning, Armitage was "in deep distress," says a source directly familiar with the conversation who asked not to be identified because of legal sensitivities. "I'm sure he's talking about me."

Armitage's admission led to a flurry of anxious phone calls and meetings that day at the State Department. (Days earlier, the Justice Department had launched a criminal investigation into the Plame leak after the CIA informed officials there that she was an undercover officer.) Within hours, William Howard Taft IV, the State Department's legal adviser, notified a senior Justice official that Armitage had information relevant to the case. The next day, a team of FBI agents and Justice prosecutors investigating the leak questioned the deputy secretary. Armitage acknowledged that he had passed along to Novak information contained in a classified State Department memo: that Wilson's wife worked on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues at the CIA. (The memo made no reference to her undercover status.) Armitage had met with Novak in his State Department office on July 8, 2003—just days before Novak published his first piece identifying Plame. Powell, Armitage and Taft, the only three officials at the State Department who knew the story, never breathed a word of it publicly and Armitage's role remained secret.

Armitage, a well-known gossip who loves to dish and receive juicy tidbits about Washington characters, apparently hadn't thought through the possible implications of telling Novak about Plame's identity. "I'm afraid I may be the guy that caused this whole thing," he later told Carl Ford Jr., State's intelligence chief. 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 recalls in "Hubris," to be published next week by Crown and co-written by the author of this article and David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation magazine.

As it turned out, Novak wasn't the only person Armitage talked to about Plame. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward has also said he was told of Plame's identity in June 2003. Woodward did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but, as late as last week, he referred reporters to his comments in November 2005 that he learned of her identity in a "casual and offhand" conversation with an administration official he declined to identify. According to three government officials, a lawyer familiar with the case and an Armitage confidant, all of whom would not be named discussing these details, Armitage told Woodward about Plame three weeks before talking to Novak. Armitage has consistently refused to discuss the case; through an assistant last week he declined to comment for this story. Novak would say only: "I don't discuss my sources until they reveal themselves."


Armitage's central role as the primary source on Plame is detailed for the first time in "Hubris," which recounts the leak case and the inside battles at the CIA and White House in the run-up to the war. The disclosures about Armitage, gleaned from interviews with colleagues, friends and lawyers directly involved in the case, underscore one of the ironies of the Plame investigation: that the initial leak, seized on by administration critics as evidence of how far the White House was willing to go to smear an opponent, came from a man who had no apparent intention of harming anyone.

Indeed, Armitage was a member of the administration's small moderate wing. Along with his boss and good friend, Powell, he had deep misgivings about President George W. Bush's march to war. A barrel-chested Vietnam vet who had volunteered for combat, Armitage at times expressed disdain for Dick Cheney and other administration war hawks who had never served in the military. Armitage routinely returned from White House meetings shaking his head at the armchair warriors. "One day," says Powell's former chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, "we were walking into his office and Rich turned to me and said, 'Larry, these guys never heard a bullet go by their ears in anger ... None of them ever served. They're a bunch of jerks'."

But officials at the White House also told reporters about Wilson's wife in an effort to discredit Wilson for his public attacks on Bush's handling of Iraq intelligence. Karl Rove confirmed to Novak that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and days later offered the same information to Time reporter Matt Cooper. The inquiry into the case led to the indictment of Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Armitage himself was aggressively investigated by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, but was never charged. Fitzgerald found no evidence that Armitage knew of Plame's covert CIA status when he talked to Novak and Woodward. The decision to go to the FBI that panicky October afternoon also may have helped Armitage. Powell, Armitage and Taft were aware of the perils of a cover-up—all three had lived through the Iran-contra scandal at the Defense Department in the late 1980s.


Taft, the State Department lawyer, also felt obligated to inform White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. But Powell and his aides feared the White House would then leak that Armitage had been Novak's source—possibly to embarrass State Department officials who had been unenthusiastic about Bush's Iraq policy. So Taft told Gonzales the bare minimum: that the State Department had passed some information about the case to Justice. He didn't mention Armitage. Taft asked if Gonzales wanted to know the details. The president's lawyer, playing the case by the book, said no, and Taft told him nothing more. Armitage's role thus remained that rarest of Washington phenomena: a hot secret that never leaked.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14533384...wsweek/page/2/


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