consortiumnews.com

U.S. Press Bigwigs Screw Up, Again

By Robert Parry
September 14, 2006

So, right-wing columnist Robert Novak now says that Richard Armitage, Novak’s initial source on the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, wasn’t just some loose-lipped gossip blurting out her name, but rather that Armitage urged Novak to write about Plame’s alleged role in her husband’s fact-finding trip to Niger.

In a Sept. 14 column, Novak calls Armitage’s recent depiction of their July 2003 conversation “deceptive” for suggesting that Armitage’s leaking of Plame’s CIA identity was innocent and inadvertent, when Novak recalled it as intentional and even calculating.

Yet, for the past two weeks, major Washington journalists have been treating Armitage’s account as the gospel truth and, further, as proof that George W. Bush’s White House had gotten a bum rap on the Plame-leak scandal.

This misplaced “conventional wisdom” extended from the Washington Post’s editorial pages to virtually every major TV chat show – and even touched off another round of personal attacks by Bush allies against Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for having dared to stand up to the President over his false claims that Iraq sought uranium ore from Niger.

According to these press pundits, the real victim in the Plame case was Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, who had suffered under suspicions that he had orchestrated a smear campaign against Wilson for becoming, in July 2003, one of the first Washington insiders to accuse Bush of having “twisted” intelligence to justify invading Iraq.

Despite reams of evidence that Rove did participate in such a smear campaign – and also was a source on Plame’s identity for at least two journalists – prominent opinion leaders rallied to Rove’s defense, chastising news outlets that had pointed fingers at Rove.

In a Sept. 7 article, entitled “One Leak and a Flood of Silliness,” veteran Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote that publications which had made these allegations “owe Karl Rove an apology. And all of journalism needs to relearn the lesson: Can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts.”

But it now appears that it was Broder and other see-no-evil pundits who were ignoring the facts as well as the well-worn pattern of the Bush administration attacking Iraq War critics.

Indeed, if anyone deserves chastising for unprofessional journalism, it would be Broder and other mainstream journalists who continue wearing blinders that so limit their field of vision that – after all these years – they still can’t believe that Rove and the White House would play dirty to discredit anyone who challenges Bush.

On Sept. 3, I wrote that this clueless behavior of these Washington journalists – in the face of so much damning evidence – justified the old “Shawshank Redemption” question posed to the corrupt prison warden: “How can you be so obtuse?” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Obtuse Is the U.S. Press?”]

Armitage Myth

Beyond the specific evidence of a White House campaign to out covert CIA officer Valerie Plame and the broader Republican hostility toward anyone who gets in Bush’s way, there is also the notion that Armitage, long considered a tough team player, was an independent soul who would never help the administration discredit a troublesome critic.

Though Armitage may not have been one of Bush’s intimates nor a leading enthusiast for invading Iraq in 2003, the Washington press corps is exaggerating both Armitage’s independence and his anti-war credentials.

Virtually forgotten in all the news coverage was the fact that in 1998, Armitage was one of the 18 signatories to a seminal letter from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century urging President Bill Clinton to oust Saddam Hussein by military force if necessary.

Armitage joined a host of neoconservative icons, such as Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, William Kristol, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Many of the signers, including Donald Rumsfeld, would become architects of Bush’s Iraq War policy five years later.

A well-placed conservative source, who knows both Armitage and Rove, told me that the two operatives are much closer than many in official Washington understand. Armitage and Rove grew to be friends when they were negotiating plans for bringing Colin Powell into the Bush administration in 2000, when Armitage represented Powell and Rove stood in for Bush.

After the administration took office, Rove and Armitage remained in frequent communication, becoming a back channel for sharing sensitive information between the White House and the State Department, the source said.

Beyond these relationships, there is also evidence that Armitage was part of a classic Washington scheme to slip Plame’s identity into the newspapers, albeit with plenty of deniability for all involved.

The evidence about Armitage’s role in leaking Plame’s identity – and thus destroying her CIA career as an undercover counter-proliferation operative – now includes Novak’s account of their July 8, 2003, interview as Novak described it in his Sept. 14, 2006, column, entitled “Armitage’s Leak.”

Toward the end of the hour-long meeting, Novak wrote, he asked Armitage, the then-Deputy Secretary of State, why former Ambassador Wilson, had been sent on the trip to Africa. (Novak doesn’t say whether he was one of the journalists who had been urged by the White House to pursue that line of questioning.)

Novak wrote 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. As for his current implication that he [Armitage] never expected this to be published, he noted that the story of Mrs. Wilson’s role fit the style of the old Evans-Novak column – implying to me that it continued reporting Washington inside information.”

In other words, Novak acknowledges two significant points: that he asked why Ambassador Wilson was chosen and that Armitage knew that Plame held a sensitive CIA position, yet still wanted her exposed.

Deniable Leak

What is not clear from Novak’s account is whether anyone in the administration planted the idea of asking about Wilson’s trip in Novak’s head, knowing that the Plame information had been distributed sufficiently at senior levels of the administration that it likely would be divulged by someone.

Rather than Broder’s claim that this idea of an orchestrated leak is some kind of “conspiracy theory,” it actually is a fairly common Washington technique for getting out damaging information about an adversary, spreading the news around the government and then urging reporters to ask about it.

Plus, there is solid evidence that the White House conducted just such an operation.

A month before Wilson’s Iraq-Niger Op-Ed article appeared in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney already was anticipating possible trouble from the former ambassador whose trip to Africa had helped disprove the bogus claims that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium ore from Niger.

So, Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby requested a report on Wilson from Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, a neoconservative ally. In violation of the strict rules against jeopardizing the covert identity of CIA officers, Grossman’s report, dated June 10, 2003, tossed in a reference to “Valerie Plame” as Wilson’s wife.

CIA Director George Tenet also divulged to Cheney that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in arranging Wilson’s trip to Niger – information that Cheney then passed on to Libby in a conversation on June 12, 2003, according to Libby’s notes as described by lawyers in the case. [NYT, Oct. 25, 2005]

Those two facts – Plame’s work for the CIA and her minor role in Wilson’s Niger trip (which was approved and arranged at higher levels of the CIA) – were transformed into attack points against Wilson, to suggest nepotism and to question Wilson’s manhood.

On June 23, 2003, still two weeks before Wilson’s article, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and, according to a later retrospective by the Times, may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA.

The anti-Wilson campaign gained new urgency when the ex-ambassador penned his Op-Ed article for the New York Times on July 6, 2003.

As Cheney read Wilson’s article, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” the Vice President scribbled down questions he wanted pursued. “Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”

Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his questions indicated that he was aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s assignment to check out the Niger reports. [Cheney’s notations were disclosed in a May 12, 2006, court filing by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.]

On the morning of July 6, 2003, Wilson appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to elaborate on the Niger dispute. Later that day, Armitage arranged for a copy of Grossman’s memo to be sent to Air Force One, where Secretary of State Powell was accompanying President Bush and other senior officials on a state trip to Africa.

On July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson’s article, Libby gave Judith Miller more details about the Wilsons. Cheney’s chief of staff said Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation. It was in the context of that interview, that Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

On that same day, Novak elicited the information from Armitage about the role of Wilson’s wife in arranging the Niger trip.

Planted Question

Meanwhile, Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson, who was on the presidential trip to Africa, was getting prodded by other administration officials to ask about the seemingly insignificant question of who had been involved in arranging Wilson’s trip.

On July 11, 2003, as Bush was finishing a meeting with the president of Uganda, Dickerson said he was chatting with a “senior administration official” who was tearing down Wilson and disparaging Wilson’s Niger investigation. The message to Dickerson was that “some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission” and that Dickerson “should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.”

Later, Dickerson discussed Wilson with a second “senior administration official” and got the same advice: “This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle,” Dickerson recalled.

“At the end of the two conversations I wrote down in my notebook: ‘look who sent.’ … What struck me was how hard both officials were working to knock down Wilson.” [See Dickerson’s article, “Where’s My Subpoena?” for Slate, Feb. 7, 2006]

Back in Washington on July 11, 2003, Dickerson’s Time colleague, Matthew Cooper, was getting a similar earful from Bush’s political adviser Rove, who tried to steer Cooper away from Wilson’s critical statements about the “twisted” Niger intelligence.

Rove added that the Niger trip was authorized by “Wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency [CIA] on WMD issues,” according to Cooper’s notes of the interview. [See Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]

Cooper later got the information about Wilson’s wife confirmed by Cheney’s chief of staff Libby, who had already been peddling the information to Miller.

On July 12, 2003, in a telephone conversation, Miller and Libby returned to the Wilson topic. Miller’s notes contain a reference to a “Victoria Wilson,” another misspelled reference to Wilson’s wife. [NYT, Oct. 16, 2005]

Two days later, on July 14, 2003, Novak – having gotten confirmation about Plame’s identity from Karl Rove – published a column, citing two administration sources outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

But the White House counterattack against Wilson had only just begun. On July 20, 2003, NBC’s correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that “senior White House sources” had called her to stress “the real story here is not the 16 words [from Bush’s State of the Union speech about the Niger suspicions] but Wilson and his wife.”

The next day, Wilson said he was told by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says and I quote, ‘Wilson’s wife is fair game.’”

'Given to Me'

When Newsday spoke with Novak – before he decided to clam up – the columnist said he had been approached by administration sources with the information about Plame. “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak said. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.” [Newsday, July 22, 2003]

More than three years later, in his Sept. 14, 2006, column, Novak is reiterating that early claim, indicating that Armitage was one of those who pushed Plame’s identity. But, also note Novak’s use of the plural in referring to the administration officials who gave him the Plame information: “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name.”

Novak’s comment and the wealth of other evidence suggest that he was, indeed, just one cog in a broader campaign to get Plame’s name into the press. It wasn’t a case of some tidbit casually mentioned as “gossip” by Armitage and then reluctantly confirmed by “poor” Karl Rove, which is the current “conventional wisdom” of Washington.

Novak’s contemporaneous comment to Newsday fits with the pattern of facts that is now established about the administration’s organized leak of Plame’s name, as well as with a common-sense understanding of how this White House operates when Bush faces criticism.

In a court filing – after indicting Libby on five counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice – special prosecutor Fitzgerald said his investigation had uncovered government documents that “could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson” because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the Iraq-Niger allegations.

Without doubt – based simply on the public record – the evidence clearly supports Fitzgerald’s conclusion.

Beyond the Plame leak, the White House also oversaw a public-relations strategy to denigrate Wilson. The Republican National Committee put out talking points ridiculing Wilson, and the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made misleading claims about his honesty in a WMD report.

Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration and its many media allies sought instead to smear the former ambassador.

The Republican National Committee even posted an article entitled “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which itself used glaring inaccuracies and misstatements to discredit Wilson. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Novak Recycles Gannon on ‘Plame-gate.’”]

Meanwhile, with her undercover work and her career in ruins, Plame quit the CIA. She and her husband have since filed a lawsuit against some of the administration officials implicated in the leak.

Yet, David Broder and many other Washington journalists either still don’t get it – how the administration set out to destroy this couple and make them an example for other potential critics – or perhaps the pundits are as willfully obtuse as the corrupt prison warden in “Shawshank Redemption.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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