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Former State Dept. Official Admits Role as CIA Leak Source

August 30, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Just who did reveal the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media has been an open question for more than three years. Syndicated columnist Robert Novak identified Plame in a Washington Post piece in July 2003. His source: two unnamed Bush administration officials.

The column was about Plame’s husband, Joe Wilson, a career diplomat, who had criticized the administration for using faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion.

Novak’s naming of a covert CIA operative touched off a political firestorm and a federal investigation. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald never did indict anyone for leaking Plame’s name. But New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to testify to a grand jury about what she knew.

And Vice President Cheney’s aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators. Novak appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this past Sunday.

ROBERT NOVAK, Syndicated Columnist: I want to say one thing, though, I haven’t said before, and that is I believe the time is way past for my source to identify himself.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yesterday, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was identified through lawyers and associates as the one who told Novak that Plame worked for the CIA. Armitage, who was number two at the State Department at the time, left his government post in February 2005.

Revelation of a little-kept secret

Neil Lewis
The New York Times
It was a genuine, unusually unique capital mystery for the first couple of years. But in the past few months, it's been a little-kept secret. It has sort of gotten out that it was Mr. Armitage who was the original primary source for Robert Novak.

JIM LEHRER: And to New York Times correspondent Neil Lewis. He's been covering this story since it began over three years ago.

Neil, welcome.

NEIL LEWIS, New York Times: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Does the fact that it was Richard Armitage rate a label of being a startling revelation?

NEIL LEWIS: Not for the past few months. It was a genuine, unusually unique capital mystery for the first couple of years. But in the past few months, it's been a little-kept secret. It has sort of gotten out that it was Mr. Armitage who was the original primary source for Robert Novak.

JIM LEHRER: What is known about the circumstances surrounding his discussion or his talk with Novak?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, first of all, we know that Mr. Armitage was not charged with anything. And we now know why: Because it appears that his version is that he told Robert Novak during an interview about other subjects at his State Department office, and he told him casually at the end.

The reason he told him -- I shouldn't say the reason he told him, but what he told him was what he had seen in a State Department report that did not mention that Valerie Plame was undercover.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any suggestion, unofficially or officially that you've picked up, Neil, since this -- the last few weeks -- that Armitage is going to be charged with violating the law?

NEIL LEWIS: Oh, almost certainly not. I think that decision was made quite a long time ago. The law in question requires a willful disclosure of an undercover officer's identity.

He clearly convinced people at the Justice Department and ultimately the special prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, that it was an inadvertent and unintended comment to Mr. Novak. He didn't even realize that he was the source of that column until Mr. Novak wrote a second column some months later, trying to justify himself, saying it was not -- this was Novak saying -- it was not a White House plot. It was someone who is not a political gunslinger.

When Mr. Armitage read that, he said, "Oh, my gosh, it's probably me." And then he went to some colleagues in the State Department. The Justice Department was notified. And he was interviewed by the FBI, and he detailed everything he knew at that point.

Not a major player

Neil Lewis
The New York Times
He was not nor could have been part of some White House plot to undermine either Mr. or Mrs. Wilson.

JIM LEHRER: Is it correct to say, as a matter of fact, that Richard Armitage was not a White House gunslinger? In fact, he worked for Colin Powell, the secretary of state, correct?

NEIL LEWIS: Most certainly. Most certainly. So almost, as you say, per se, he was not nor could have been part of some White House plot to undermine either Mr. or Mrs. Wilson.

JIM LEHRER: So he's not involved in anything involving Vice President Cheney, Scooter Libby, Karl Rove, or anybody like that, right?

NEIL LEWIS: No evidence that he was. And all our intuition tells us that's not logical.

JIM LEHRER: It's also been suggested, Neil, that he made similar off-handed comments to other reporters. Can you confirm that?

NEIL LEWIS: He did, only in one instance that we know of, and that's a month earlier, in June 2003, a similar, as you say, off-handed comment to Bob Woodward, the assistant managing editor of the Washington Post and a celebrated author, one of the world's most famous reporters.

Mr. Woodward's role is a little different because he apparently did nothing with the information, just kept it to himself. And he was a late player in this. And after it all played out, he testified to the grand jury that, indeed, he did learn this from Mr. Armitage.

Uncovering a conspiracy

Neil Lewis
The New York Times
Other officials did speak to other reporters about Valerie Plame as a CIA officer. In the end, as you mentioned earlier in your piece, no one was found guilty of having willfully disclosed Valerie Plame's identity.

JIM LEHRER: What is known about when Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, when he found out that the source was Richard Armitage?

NEIL LEWIS: That's really a fascinating issue that raises lots of questions, because, as I mentioned before, Mr. Armitage figured out he was the source and went to the Justice Department and was questioned by FBI officials in October of 2003.

JIM LEHRER: October 2003?

NEIL LEWIS: Yes. Mr. Fitzgerald doesn't come on the scene until December 2003. So the day that he takes office as the special prosecutor to find out who was the leaker and what was behind it, the day he takes his chair, he knows that the primary leaker to Bob Novak was, in fact, Richard Armitage.

JIM LEHRER: So what was this all about, Neil?

NEIL LEWIS: Well, all of these questions are more intriguing now that we know this, especially with the timing. Now, the special prosecutor was charged with finding out if there was some sort of White House or Bush administration conspiracy to discredit Mr. Wilson and harm Mrs. Wilson, Valerie Plame.

The fact that he knew Armitage was the principal source that started all this doesn't necessarily mean that this other business doesn't exist...

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

NEIL LEWIS: ... because, in fact, other officials did speak to other reporters about Valerie Plame as a CIA officer. In the end, as you mentioned earlier in your piece, no one was found guilty of having willfully disclosed Valerie Plame's identity.

JIM LEHRER: Or even charged? Nobody was even charged.

NEIL LEWIS: Or even charged. No one was even charged.

A revelation of little effect

JIM LEHRER: What's the word about how this revelation, now that it's public and it's common knowledge about Armitage, how is that going to affect the case against Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former Cheney chief of staff?

NEIL LEWIS: I'm not sure how it will affect the case, because just taking the case first, the case against him, it's one of those classic Washington circumstances. He was charged with obstruction of justice and perjury because he is charged with lying to a grand jury and FBI agents about how he learned about Valerie Plame's identity and what he told reporters.

In a sense, this is another example of what is now contemporary cliche that we all know: It's not the crime; it's the cover-up. Again, he has pleaded not guilty to all of these things.

But on the trial itself, was what you asked, Jim, I would say, from covering it, that the judge, the trial judge here in Washington, has narrowed the issues so much that it's not helpful for Mr. Libby. That is, he's narrowed the issues to just whether he said untruthful things to the FBI and the grand jury...

JIM LEHRER: Unrelated to Armitage?

NEIL LEWIS: Unrelated to Armitage...

JIM LEHRER: Totally different things?

NEIL LEWIS: ... unrelated to the propriety of the Iraq war, unrelated to what Mr. Wilson wrote. And all of these things Mr. Libby's lawyers had hoped to bring into the trial, but the judge has narrowed it just to Mr. Libby's behavior. And that comes down to, "He did say things that were apparently wrong," but whether he did it willfully or not will be part of the trial.

JIM LEHRER: So it's possible this could on for another three years. Have a good time on the story, Neil. Thank you.

NEIL LEWIS: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: We'll have you back and talk about it. Thanks.

NEIL LEWIS: Cheers.