On “Face the Nation” yesterday, former secretary of state Colin Powell accused former vice president Dick Cheney of taking “cheap shots” in his about-to-be released memoirs. However, in taking on Cheney’s account of the Valerie Plame matter, Powell is the one who misleads and distorts.
Powell had this to say in response to Cheney’s book, which lays blame on Powell’s deputy Richard Armitage as the real leaker who revealed Plame’s identity as a CIA employee, setting off the appointment of a special prosecutor and the eventual conviction of Scooter Libby. Powell says this:
Then he goes on to talk about the Valerie Plame affair, and tries to lay it all off on Mister Rich Armitage in the State Department and me. But the fact of the matter is when Mister Armitage realized that he was the source for Bob Novak’s column that caused all the difficulty and he called me immediately, two days after the President launched the investigation and what we did was we called the Justice Department. They sent it over the FBI. The FBI had all the information that Mister Armitage’s participation in this immediately. And we called Al Gonzalez, the President’s counsel, and told him that we had information. The FBI asked us not to share any of this with anyone else, as did Mister Gonzalez. And so, if the White House operatives had come forward as readily as Mister Armitage had done, then we wouldn’t have gone on for two more months with the FBI trying to find out what happened in the White House. There wouldn’t have been special counsel appointed by the Justice Department who spent two years trying to get to the bottom of it. And we wouldn’t have the mess that we subsequently had. And so if the White House and the operatives in the White House and Mister Cheney’s staff and elsewhere in the White House had been as forthcoming with the FBI as Mister Armitage was, this problem would not have reached the dimensions that it reached.
Let’s count the ways in which this is inaccurate or misleading. To begin with, Powell leaves out the critical fact: He and Armitage never told the president what Armitage had done. Instead, they sat silent as the investigation played out and others, including Karl Rove and Libby, were ensnared in an investigation for a crime that, if committed at all, was one for which Armitage should rightly have been prosecuted. Powell on Sunday slyly said they informed the attorney general that they “had information.” But they most definitely did not tell him, the president or the country that the leaker was Armitage.
The best account of this comes from Michael Isikoff, hardly a Cheney or Libby apologist. In his book, he explained what unfolded after Armitage told Powell about his role in the leak:
The next day, a team of FBI agents and Justice prosecutors investigating the leak questioned the deputy secretary. Armitage acknowledged that he had passed along to Novak information contained in a classified State Department memo: that [ Joe] Wilson’s wife worked on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues at the CIA... [William Howard Taft IV, the State Department’s legal adviser] felt obligated to inform White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. But Powell and his aides feared the White House would then leak that Armitage had been Novak’s source — possibly to embarrass State Department officials who had been unenthusiastic about Bush’s Iraq policy. So Taft told Gonzales the bare minimum: that the State Department had passed some information about the case to Justice. He didn’t mention Armitage. Taft asked if Gonzales wanted to know the details. The president’s lawyer, playing the case by the book, said no, and Taft told him nothing more. Armitage’s role thus remained that rarest of Washington phenomena: a hot secret that never leaked. [Emphasis added.]
Notice that in Isikoff’s account the FBI never told Armitage and Powell to keep quiet. No, the secrecy was their idea. Moreover, Powell states that White House aides were not “forthcoming.” We know, of course, this is false. Numerous aides were dragged into FBI interview and grand jury rooms, required to pay for counsel and, in the case of Libby, prosecuted and convicted while the actual leaker’s identity remained secret. Talk about cheap shots.
Recall how all of this played out. Armitage and Powell allowed the entire country and troops in the field to believe a lie, namely that the White House had “outed” Plame. This, aside from the galling display of moral cowardice, also put the president’s reelection in jeopardy since Democrats were all too intent on making this into a huge scandal.
The extent of the dishonesty is quite stunning. In a Cabinet meeting on October 7, 2003, the White House press corps bombarded President George W. Bush with questions about who the leaker was. Bush said he didn’t know, but there would be an investigation to get to the bottom of it. Powell, who had been told by Armitage just days earlier that Armitage was the leaker, sat there next to the president, stone silent. Not very loyal or honest, was it?
Moreover, the notion that Armitage’s slip was somehow inadvertent is belied by Bob Woodward’s taped interview in which Armitage repeatedly mentions Joe Wilson’s wife, evidently doing his best to get Plame’s identity out there. This was no slip of the tongue. Woodward testified that when he spoke to Libby sometime later that Libby never said anything about Plame.
At issue here is not simply Powell and Armitage’s deception and undermining of their commander in chief. There was a victim, one whom neither Powell or Armitage has ever apologized to. The person who ultimately paid the price for this was Scooter Libby. Had the president and the country known about Armitage, a special prosecutor would never have been appointed. Libby was eventually convicted on the basis of a he-said-he-said dispute between his recollection and that of the late Tim Russert. (Charges concerning Libby’s alleged comments to Judy Miller were dismissed, and he was acquitted on the count involving Matt Cooper.) A compelling case for Libby’s innocence can be found in this account by Stan Crock.
Powell may be peeved at being fingered by Cheney. But on this one Cheney has him dead to rights. The Plame is a blot on his record and that of Armitage. Maybe it is time to own up and make amends rather than bristling at Libby’s former boss.