By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2006
Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said yesterday that he believes he was the initial source for a 2003 newspaper column by Robert D. Novak that disclosed the CIA's previously secret employment of Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent critic of the U.S. war in Iraq.
Armitage said that he learned about Plame's employment from a State Department memo that did not mention her covert status, and that he had no knowledge of it at the time. In 40 years of reading classified materials, Armitage said in a telephone interview, "I have never seen in a memo . . . a covert agent's name."
Novak's disclosure of Plame's CIA employment ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the leak. In October of last year, a grand jury indicted vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters about Plame, forcing his resignation and embarrassing the White House.
But Armitage, who said he testified about his actions to a grand jury three times, was not charged for making the disclosure, a circumstance he attributes to his candor in speaking with investigators about his action. He turned over his computers and never even hired an attorney, Armitage said, because "I did not need an attorney to tell me to tell the truth."
The confirmation of Armitage's role has provoked criticism of both him and the special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who learned of it shortly after his appointment in 2003. Some have questioned why Armitage waited so long to speak up about it, and why Fitzgerald spent two years appearing to chase a question that had already been answered.
Armitage said yesterday that he did not disclose his role before now because Fitzgerald had asked him not to. But word of his role eventually began to circulate, and on Tuesday, Armitage said, he asked Fitzgerald to be freed of that promise. Fitzgerald agreed.
Armitage said that he was asked, during the course of the investigation, whether he had discussed the leak in advance with other senior administration officials, and that he replied: "Hell, no."
Instead, he said, he divulged Plame's name in an offhand way at the end of his conversation with Novak, whom he had not previously met. Novak had asked him why former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV -- Plame's husband -- had been tasked to probe Iraq's alleged interest in acquiring nuclear materials.
"Novak asked me, 'Hey, why did the CIA send Mr. Wilson to Niger?' I said, 'I don't know, but I think his wife worked out there,' " Armitage said.
Novak asked because Wilson at the time was accusing the White House of deliberately distorting the intelligence it had received on Iraq's nuclear program to justify its invasion of the country, an allegation that infuriated Vice President Cheney and other top officials.
But Armitage said he did not realize that he was a source for Novak's subsequent column naming Plame until October 2003, when Novak identified one of his sources as someone who was not a "partisan gunslinger." That mention provoked Armitage to tell then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who told the State Department's top lawyer, who in turn arranged for Armitage to speak with the Justice Department.
Armitage also acknowledged making a similar offhand remark about Plame earlier in 2003 to Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, who was researching a book about the decision to invade Iraq. Armitage said he deeply regrets embarrassing Powell, the State Department, his friends and family, and the Wilsons.