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Greenfield: Game over on the Plame leak? Maybe not

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analysis
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- There's a new twist to a controversy that has been roiling the political waters for more than three years.

This week numerous news organizations, including CNN, have identified former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the original source for Robert Novak's column that identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative.

According to CNN's sources, Armitage revealed Plame's identity inadvertently to Novak, who then confirmed Plame's identity with White House adviser Karl Rove. (Full story)

It's a twist that has many on the Right saying, "we told you so" and some on the Left saying "not so fast."

The controversy began in July 2003, when former career diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, debunking a key assertion by President Bush about Saddam's intentions.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush had said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

In his op-ed, Wilson wrote that he had been dispatched to Niger in 2002 by the CIA, and found no evidence of such an effort.

A week later, a column by Novak revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee. The point of the disclosure, apparently, was to suggest that Wilson's tip had been a nepotistic favor.

But another question quickly surfaced: What kind of employee? If she was a covert operative, who had worked in foreign countries undercover, "outing" her could destroy her career -- maybe even threaten her safety. Under some circumstances, such a disclosure would be criminal. So, was revealing her name a violation of the law? And if so, who did it?

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was named a special prosecutor to investigate; reporters were subpoenaed.

Then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail after she refused to reveal her source. And speculation centered around key White House aide Karl Rove; who, his critics said, was part of an effort to punish Wilson for his comments.

Indeed, in May of this year, "Truthoutexternal link" a liberal Web site, reported flatly that Rove had been indicted for perjury. But a month later, Rove received word that he would not be indicted. And the only official indicted so far, former Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is charged not with leaking Plame's name, but with misleading investigators about who he talked to.

But now, in a new book, "Hubris," Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and The Nation's David Corn report that Novak's source was Armitage -- a longtime top aide to Colin Powell.

Far from being one of the Bush Administration "hawks," Armitage spent much of the Bush first term in bitter bureaucratic turf wars with Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. So the "leak" appeared much more as Novak said it was: A casual, off-hand factoid, rather than part of any strategy to punish Wilson and warn others of the dangers of crossing Team Bush.

To conservatives, this Armitage disclosure is proof that there never was any effort to smear Joseph Wilson, or to injure Valerie Plame. The Wall Street Journal editorial page Wednesday pointedly asked why Armitage never let Fitzgerald know of his role. The National Review says the whole controversy was much ado about nothing.

But does this put an end to the mater? Liberal bloggers say maybe not. Maybe others were out to punish Wilson and his wife even if Armitage's talk with Novak was wholly innocent.

And there is this curious report from a Washington Post piece of September 2003:

"Before the Novak column was published," the Post said, quoting a senior administration official, "two top white house officials contacted at least six reporters and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife." If that reporting is right, the questions remain.

At the least, though, this story suggests that passionate opposition to a policy or an administration is no guarantee that every suspicion will be borne out.

Conspiracy is a great plot device for TV shows like "24"; it's a much less reliable guide to what happens in Washington.

Sources say former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the original source for Robert Novak's column that revealed Valerie Plame's name.




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