The Culture of Leaks

The Culture of Leaks

The political culture of Washington is fueled by gossip, intrigue and leaks. It was a combination that turned toxic in the Valerie Plame Affair.


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The book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq
, has set off a dispute between conservative columnist Bob
Novak and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

The book–which recounts the behind-the-scenes battles that went on
within the CIA, the State Department, Congress and the White House over
the administration’s case for war before and after the Iraq
invasion–discloses that Armitage was the original source for the Novak
column of July 14, 2003, which outed Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA
“operative on weapons of mass destruction.” (The book also reveals that
Valerie Wilson was operations chief for the clandestine Joint Task Force
on Iraq and oversaw espionage operations aimed at gathering intelligence
on Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMDs.) Following the book’s release,
Armitage publicly confessed and apologized to Valerie Wilson and her
husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. He said that the leak had been
an inadvertent slip, an act of gossip that came during an interview with
Novak about Colin Powell and the State Department. Armitage claimed he
had merely told Novak–in an off-the-cuff fashion–“I think his wife
works out there,” meaning the CIA.

In a column published on Wednesday, Novak accuses Armitage of not telling the
truth. The former No. 2 at the State Department, Novak insists,
“obscured what he really did.” Novak writes:

First, Armitage did not, as he now indicates, merely pass on
something he had heard and that he “thought” might be so. Rather, he
identified to me the CIA division where Mrs. Wilson worked, and said
flatly that she recommended the mission to Niger by her husband, former
Amb. Joseph Wilson.

Second, Armitage did not slip me this information as idle chitchat, as
he now suggests. He made clear he considered it especially suited for my

This account depicts Armitage as deliberately leaking information on
Valerie Wilson. In our book, Isikoff and I raise the possibility that
Armitage might have told Novak about Wilson’s wife and her CIA
employment to distance the State Department from the burgeoning Wilson
imbroglio–as a way of saying, We here at State had nothing to do with
that trouble-causing Wilson trip to Niger. Novak claims that Armitage
“told me unequivocally that Mrs. Wilson worked in the CIA’s
Counter-Proliferation Division and that she had suggested her husband’s
mission.” (Valerie Wilson’s role in her husband’s mission has been
overblown; Isikoff and I lay this out in the book.)

Novak, as he acknowledges, did not take notes of this hour-long
conversation, which might strike some reporters as odd, given that he
had been endeavoring for years to snag an interview with Armitage. So
outsiders are left with a he-said/he-said tussle. But Novak’s latest
account does seem to contradict an earlier version.

In his recent column, Novak contends that Armitage intentionally passed
him information on Wilson and went so far as to suggest the material
might be good fodder for a column. Yet in an October 1, 2003 column,
Novak said of the leak,

It was an offhand revelation from this [unnamed] official, who is no
partisan gunslinger.

“Offhand revelation” doesn’t quite cover Novak’s (current) depiction of
the exchange as a deliberate leak. Novak’s October 1, 2003
column–written days after the news broke that the FBI had launched a
criminal investigation of the leak that was targeting the White
House–seemed intended to downplay the leak as significant or
intentional. (That article also stated, “It was well known around
Washington that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.”) Novak’s recent
column, written at a time when White House defenders are trying to dump
all the blame on Armitage, claims the leak was purposeful. Which was it?

Novak’s current account may well be an accurate recollection. There’s no
reason to take Armitage’s quasi-face-saving version at face-value. But
perhaps Novak can explain in yet one more column why he first called the
leak an “offhand revelation”?

At the end of his new column, Novak excoriates Armitage:

Armitage’s silence the next 2 1/2 years caused intense pain for his
colleagues in government and enabled partisan Democrats in Congress to
falsely accuse Rove of being my primary source.

Novak neglects to note that Karl Rove was the source he used to confirm
the leak he had received from Armitage–and that Rove also leaked
classified information on Valerie Wilson to Matt Cooper of Time
magazine before the leak appeared in Novak’s column. Nor does
Novak mention that Scooter Libby leaked information on Valerie Wilson to
Judith Miller of the New York Times weeks before Novak entered
Armitage’s office–and also confirmed Rove’s leak to Cooper. (A source
close to Rove is quoted in Hubris saying that Rove “probably”
learned about Valerie Wilson from Libby.) Like Armitage, Rove and Libby
kept silent, even as the White House claimed they were not involved in
the leak. Maybe it’s time for all leakers to come clean and tell what

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