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Former State Department Official Is Blamed in Plame Leak

Times Staff Writers

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 of State 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, not a White House source, identified Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak was seized upon by GOP loyalists who said it showed that the administration 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 a civil suit.

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The disclosure about Armitage raised tantalizing questions as well. Among them: Why would Armitage, a close aide to former Secretary of State 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 President Bush twisted in the wind of a damaging Justice Department investigation?

Some said the revelation could aide the cause of former vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the only person Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has charged in the case. Libby was indicted last year for allegedly lying 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 leaving office. Libby’s trial on perjury and obstruction charges is to begin in January.

A spokesman for Armitage said he had no comment.

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

The Wall Street Journal editorial page said Wednesday that the leak by Armitage and his subsequent reticence raised “a serious case of disloyalty” and called for the former official to “fess up.” It said that Armitage and Powell had “let the president take political heat for the case” while leaving other officials under a cloud of suspicion.

Armitage, 61, a barrel-chested 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.

A centrist Republican, Armitage was considered a leader among half a dozen foreign policy advisors known as the Vulcans, a group that, starting in 2000, guided George W. Bush in an area in which the then-presidential candidate had little experience.

During Bush’s first term, Armitage was highly regarded by some in this close-knit group of advisors that included his boss in the State Department, Powell, and then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The identity of Novak’s source has been one of the most enduring mysteries in Washington since the “Deep Throat” days of Watergate.

Novak first revealed that Plame worked for the CIA in a July 14, 2003, column.

Novak’s article appeared eight days after a column by Wilson in the New York Times describing a trip he took to Niger for the CIA in February 2002 to assess a report that the African nation was selling nuclear materials to Iraq. Bush referenced the report in his 2003 State of the Union address.

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Wilson asserted in his column that the report’s claims were baseless.

Novak suggested Wilson’s trip was the product of nepotism, citing his wife’s connection to the CIA.

White House political advisor Karl Rove, whom Novak has named as a source, has acknowledged that he spoke with the columnist but that it was only after Novak had obtained information about Plame elsewhere.

Novak has remained mum about his primary source, although he described that person in an October 2003 column as “no partisan gunslinger.”

Armitage’s alleged role is described in a coming book, “Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War” by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Excerpts appear in the current issue of Newsweek.

By the authors’ account, Armitage told Novak that Plame worked for the CIA at the end of a July 8, 2003, interview in his State Department office. He was said to later contact State Department officials about his role after reading Novak’s October column, fearing, as he reportedly told one colleague, that “I may be the guy who caused this whole thing.”

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

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

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Fitzgerald, who was appointed to spearhead the probe in December 2003, reportedly knew of Armitage’s involvement from the first days of the investigation but continued to seek culprits. He has not charged anyone with the crime for which he was appointed to investigate: breaking a federal law that protects the identity of covert agents.

“One really has to question ... the nature and extent of an investigation such as this if the sources were known and it was clear that these were basically the product of offhand remarks, not some studied effort to discredit somebody,” said George Terwilliger, a former Justice Department official under President George H.W. Bush. “If, in fact, Armitage was the other source, it seems to me that it does completely debunk the idea that there was some White House cabal that was seeking to discredit Wilson.”

But lawyers for Wilson and Plame disagreed.

The couple recently filed a suit in federal court in Washington against Rove, Libby and Cheney, alleging that they conspired to deprive them of their constitutional rights by leaking Plame’s CIA connection.

“Whatever Armitage did is entirely separate,” said Melanie Sloan, the lead attorney in the case. “Our case is about the deliberate and unlawful actions of top White House officials to retaliate against Joe Wilson by disclosing the classified identity” of his wife.

The disclosure of Armitage’s alleged role could prove particularly helpful to Libby’s defense team.

The substance of conversations Armitage reportedly had with Novak and others may be less important than the fact that Armitage supposedly did not initially recall being Novak’s source.

Libby’s defense partly rests on a claim that he was so busy with his “focus on urgent national security matters” that a jury might “appreciate how Mr. Libby may have forgotten or misremembered the snippets of conversation the government alleges were so memorable,” his lawyers wrote in a March 17, 2006, court motion.

Plame’s affiliation, the filing says, was a “peripheral issue.”

Reports that Armitage did not initially recall discussing the matter might be used to support the “peripheral issue” defense and the notion that those distracted by urgent issues could easily forget such details.


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