Novak Accuses Plame Source Of Distortion

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By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Columnist Robert D. Novak, who first revealed Valerie Plame's employment by the CIA and touched off a lengthy federal leak investigation, is accusing his primary source of misrepresenting their conversation to make the source's role in the disclosure seem more casual than it was.

In an unusual column that appears today, Novak says his initial source, former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage, was more sure of Plame's ties to the CIA than the source has indicated. Novak adds that Armitage linked her directly to her husband's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger and suggested the disclosure would be a good item for Novak's column.

This differs from Armitage's assertions last week that his disclosure was made in an offhand manner and that he did not know why Plame's husband was sent to Niger.

Armitage, in an interview yesterday, said he stood by his account and disputed Novak's.

The disagreement between Novak and Armitage now covers even the length of their conversation in Armitage's office at the State Department on July 8, 2003. The fallout from that meeting eventually became a consuming political topic in Washington and led to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's indictment last October of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of lying to investigators.

The leak of Plame's name touched off a major political controversy because of media reports at the time that the White House was attempting to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson was sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy nuclear weapons material there, and on July 6, 2003, he wrote a column accusing the White House of deliberately twisting intelligence about the Iraqi program to justify the U.S. invasion.

Wilson's accusations infuriated the White House, and Fitzgerald has said in court documents that some administration officials wanted to undermine Wilson by suggesting that his assignment resulted from nepotism.

Plame sued Armitage yesterday, accusing him of violating her privacy rights.

Fitzgerald has not declared his probe of the leak finished, 2 1/2 years after it began, although he told Armitage in a Feb. 24 letter that "absent unexpected developments, I do not anticipate seeking any criminal charges against you."

In his initial July 14, 2003, column, Novak wrote that Wilson "never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." Novak also wrote that "two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate."

Novak did not identify his sources, but Armitage admitted publicly for the first time last week that he was one. White House political adviser Karl Rove earlier confirmed he was the other.

In confirming his role, Armitage said his disclosure to Novak was done in an offhand way. At the end of their conversation, "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 criticized Armitage for not revealing his involvement before now. Armitage said he remained silent because Fitzgerald warned him it might jeopardize the investigation. He said he cooperated fully with Fitzgerald's investigation since realizing on Oct. 1, 2003, that he was a source for that Novak column.

But Novak says in today's column that Armitage's statements "obscured what he really did" and that "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 ambassador Joseph Wilson."

Novak said further that "Armitage did not slip me this information as idle chitchat. . . . He made clear that he considered it especially suited for my column." In an interview, Novak said that Armitage effectively described it as stock, Washington-insider information of the sort that often appeared in the column.

Armitage, in reply, said his disclosure to Novak was inadvertent and noted that Novak himself described it as "offhand" in an Oct. 1, 2003, column. Armitage said he could not recall whether he identified the CIA division where Wilson's wife worked. He added that he rejects any suggestion he was deliberately trying to plant the information, explaining that "I had no reason to wish him [Wilson] any ill" and that Wilson "was simply verifying what had already been reported [about Iraq] through State channels."

Lobbyist Ken Duberstein, a friend of Armitage who helped arrange Novak's meeting with him, said yesterday that Armitage's account precisely matches what Armitage told him in October 2003.


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