New questions surface in Plame case

August 31, 2006|By Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger | Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A new book identifying a former high-ranking State Department official as the source who leaked the name of a CIA operative has apparently solved one of Washington's longest-running whodunits.

The disclosure about former Deputy Secretary Richard L. Armitage has also stirred up partisan passions, raising allegations about betrayal within the Bush administration and drawing new criticism of a special prosecutor's investigation that has been politically damaging to the White House.

The report that Armitage identified Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak was seized upon by GOP loyalists who said it showed the White House did not conspire to silence a war critic.

Defenders of Plame and her husband - former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV - said the report did nothing of the sort and vowed to press ahead with an extraordinary civil suit.

The disclosure about Armitage raised tantalizing questions as well. Why did Armitage, a close aide to Colin L. Powell who was often at loggerheads with the administration over war policy, not go public with his involvement for more than three years while the White House and Bush twisted in the wind of a damaging and exhaustive Justice Department investigation?

Some said the revelation could aid the cause of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the only person charged by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Libby was indicted last year on allegations that he lied to FBI agents and a grand jury about conversations he had with reporters about Plame.

Others said it could increase pressure on Bush to pardon Libby before he leaves office. Libby is set for trial in January.

A spokesman for Armitage said he would have no comment on the report.

Armitage, 61, a veteran of three tours of duty in Vietnam and a longtime Republican foreign policy warrior in the capital, operates an international consulting firm in the Washington suburbs.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to comment about the report. A lawyer for Libby, William Jeffress, also declined to comment.

Novak first revealed that Plame worked for the CIA on July 14, 2003.

His column appeared eight days after a column by Wilson in The New York Times describing a trip he took for the CIA to Niger in February 2002 to assess a report that the African nation was selling nuclear bomb-making material to Iraq. Bush referred to the report in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Wilson asserted in his column that the claim was baseless. Citing the connection of his wife to the CIA, Novak suggested the trip was the product of nepotism.

One of Novak's sources, White House political adviser Karl Rove, previously acknowledged that he spoke with the columnist, but only after Novak had obtained information about Plame elsewhere.

Novak has remained mum about his primary source, although he described him in an October 2003 column as "no partisan gunslinger."

James Hamilton, Novak's lawyer, declined to comment yesterday.

Armitage`s role is described in a forthcoming book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War by Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. Excerpts appear in the current issue of Newsweek.

By the authors' account, Armitage disclosed to Novak that Wilson worked for the CIA at the end of a July 8, 2003, interview in his State Department office. He later contacted State Department officials about his role after reading the October Novak column, fearing, as he reportedly told one colleague, that "I may be the guy who caused this whole thing."

Armitage is also believed to have told Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward about Plame and her employer in an interview three weeks before he talked with Novak. Woodward, who never wrote about Plame, disclosed the conversation to prosecutors just last November.

Armitage reportedly was told in February that he would not be charged in the case.

Some GOP lawyers and observers said the information about Armitage's involvement cast the case and investigation in a different light.

Fitzgerald, who was appointed to spearhead the probe in December 2003, knew of Armitage's involvement from the first days of the investigation but continued to search out culprits. He never did charge anyone with the crime for which he was initially appointed to investigate: breaking a federal law that protects the identity of covert agents.

Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger write for the Los Angeles Times.

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