By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006; A06
The leak of information about an undercover CIA employee that provoked a special prosecutor's investigation of senior White House officials came from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, according to a former Armitage colleague at the department.
Armitage told newspaper columnist Robert D. Novak in the summer of 2003 that Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent critic of the Iraq war, worked for the CIA, the colleague said. In October of that year, Armitage admitted to senior State Department officials that he had made the remark, which was based on a classified report he had read.
Novak collected what he considered to be a confirming comment from White House political strategist Karl Rove, then wrote a column in July 2003 that cited Plame's CIA employment as a reason to question the credentials of the critic, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
In 2002, the CIA sent Wilson to Niger to determine whether Iraq was seeking nuclear material there. He subsequently accused the White House of distorting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Novak's column set off a chain of events that culminated in the appointment of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald and a grand jury's indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for lying to investigators about his own conversations with reporters regarding Plame.
Fitzgerald has never commented on Armitage's role and has not brought charges against him.
Armitage's role in the case -- which he confirmed to the FBI in 2003 and later described to Fitzgerald and to the grand jury, his colleague said yesterday -- raises questions about when the White House became aware of the origins of Novak's story. President Bush said as late as 2005 that he was eager to learn all the facts behind the leak.
The case's origin in a conversation between Novak and Armitage is one of Washington's worst-kept secrets. Neither Novak nor Armitage has confirmed it, however, leaving a measure of uncertainty until now. A story this weekend by Newsweek magazine was the first to cite confirming statements by former Armitage associates.
Armitage did not return a phone call to his office yesterday, but his former colleague, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Armitage had described disclosing Plame's employment to Novak in an offhand manner, virtually as gossip, at the end of a conversation in Armitage's office. Armitage did not know at the time that Plame's identity was considered secret information and senior State Department officials concluded he did "not do anything wrong" when they learned about it months later, the former colleague said.
Armitage and two officials he later briefed on his role -- State Department legal adviser William Howard Taft IV and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- each discussed the matter with the FBI and testified before the grand jury, the former colleague said. But Fitzgerald told Armitage in February that he would not be charged with a crime, he said.
Three weeks before Armitage spoke to Novak, he made a similar, offhand disclosure of Plame's employment to Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, the former colleague added. Armitage disclosed the conversation to Fitzgerald after Woodward reminded him of it in October 2005, and Woodward subsequently gave a deposition about the conversation.
"Of course, I have nothing to say about sources," Woodward said yesterday.
Armitage's involvement in the matter does not fit neatly into the assertions of Bush administration critics that Plame's employment was disclosed as part of a White House conspiracy to besmirch Wilson by suggesting his Niger trip stemmed from nepotism at the CIA. Wilson and Plame have sued top administration officials, alleging that the leak was meant as retaliation.
But Armitage, the source Novak had described obliquely as someone who is "not a political gunslinger," was by all accounts hardly a tool of White House political operatives. As the No. 2 official at the State Department from March 2001 to February 2005, Armitage was a prominent Republican appointee. But he also privately disagreed with the tone and style of White House policymaking on Iraq and other matters.
"Just because Armitage did this on his own, earlier, doesn't mean that there wasn't a White House conspiracy to 'out' Valerie [Plame] Wilson. We don't think it affects the case," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the group pressing the lawsuit.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.