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
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
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? <http://www.consortiumnews.com
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
available at Amazon.com
as is his 1999 book, /Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press &