White House supporters have jumped on the news that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first Bush Administration official to tell conservative columnist Robert Novak in July 2003 that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson–who’d enraged the White House by challenging its handling of prewar intelligence–was a CIA employee working on WMD issues. Aha, the right-wingers exclaim, the White House, including Karl Rove, has been besmirched by critics who cite the CIA leak as proof of Rovian thuggery. Apologize, they demand, and give Karl back his good name.
This magazine has a special relationship to the story. An article by Washington editor David Corn first raised the possibility that the Novak leak was evidence of a White House crime. And a new book Corn wrote with Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, first revealed Armitage to be the leaker–and Valerie Wilson to have been operations chief of the CIA’s Joint Task Force on Iraq.
The political and media establishments have embraced the Armitage scoop while ignoring the book’s key contention that the affair was a window into the much bigger scandal of the Administration’s use of faulty intelligence–a scandal further documented in the recent Senate report on Iraq. Armitage was not part of a White House effort to assail Joseph Wilson, but this doesn’t mean there was no campaign to discredit a high-level critic. The record is clear: Rove and Scooter Libby also leaked to reporters about Valerie Wilson. Rove confirmed the leak for Novak and days later passed the same secret information to Matt Cooper of Time. “Scooter and Karl are out of control,” one White House aide told another. And in a court filing, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald noted that White House officials had engaged in a “concerted action” to “discredit, punish or seek revenge against” Wilson.
Bush apologists have used the Armitage news to slam Fitzgerald: Since he knew at the start that Armitage was the original leaker, they ask, why did he waste our time (and taxpayer dollars) for more than two years? The answer: Armitage quickly confessed his role to FBI investigators; Libby and Rove did not. Libby claimed he’d merely shared scuttlebutt from some reporters with other reporters. (The Libby indictment notes that he and Dick Cheney gathered information and that Libby then disclosed it to two reporters.) Rove first told investigators he’d confirmed the leak with Novak; for a year, he refused to acknowledge he’d leaked to Cooper. Fitzgerald ultimately concluded he couldn’t indict anyone for violating the law that makes it illegal for government officials to reveal information about undercover CIA officers. He would have had to prove that these leakers knew beyond a reasonable doubt that Valerie Wilson was undercover.
But no crime committed (other than Libby’s alleged obstruction of justice) doesn’t mean no harm done. The White House behaved in an ugly and unethical manner by disclosing Valerie Wilson’s CIA identity as part of a campaign against a critic. Once upon a time, the Bush White House said anyone involved in the leak would be booted out its door. Bush broke that promise. Rove escaped indictment. He ought not to escape judgment.