Not so fast, craven apologists

Since last week’s revelation that Richard Armitage was apparently Robert Novak’s initial source for the Plame leak, the Bush-Can-Do-No-Wrong crowd has been crowing happily that the entire scandal was much ado about nothing.

As has usually been the case for the past six years or so, the facts are somewhat more complicated than Bush apologists would like you to believe, and Robert Parry at Consortium News does his best to lay them out.

The Post also argued that since Armitage was a reluctant supporter of the Iraq War, “it follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House – that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity – is untrue.”

But – as with the corrupt prison warden in “Shawshank Redemption” – it’s hard to believe that national journalists could be this obtuse.

As we explain below, the evidence is overwhelming that the White House assault on Wilson was planned weeks before he published an Op-Ed on July 6, 2003, accusing Bush of twisting the yellowcake claim – and that Bush’s operatives responded by pointing journalists toward Plame’s identity.

Indeed, the available evidence doesn’t even fully support the contention that Novak first learned about Plame from his interview with Armitage on July 8, 2003. According to the Times’ own reporting, Novak apparently had been primed to ask a question on this topic.

The Times buries this crucial point in its Sept. 2 story that questions whether Fitzgerald “properly exercised his prosecutorial discretion.” In the last sentence of the 17th paragraph, the Times reports that Armitage disclosed Plame’s possible role in arranging Wilson’s Niger trip “in reply to a question.”

In other words, Armitage didn’t just toss out Plame’s CIA connection as “gossip,” as the Post editorial assumes. He apparently mentioned it in response to Novak’s question about how the Niger trip had been arranged, which begs the additional question of who might have suggested that Novak ask that.

The distinction is important because other evidence indicates that Bush’s aides were pushing reporters to ask about the circumstances behind the Niger trip, knowing that line of questioning would lead to Plame’s identity.

For instance, Time magazine correspondent John Dickerson, who accompanied a presidential trip to Africa shortly after Wilson’s article was published, said he was twice urged to pursue the seemingly insignificant question of who had been involved in arranging Wilson’s trip.

As the President toured Africa in July 2003, questions about Wilson’s article dominated the trip, prompting White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to finally concede that the yellowcake allegation was “incorrect” and should not have been included in the State of the Union speech in January 2003.

The mistake represented one of the first times the Bush administration had retreated on any national security issue. Administration officials were embarrassed, livid and determined to punish Wilson.

* * *

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. Discrediting your opposition is a standard tactic in Washington, but the Bush team usually played the game differently. At that stage in the first term, Bush aides usually blew off their critics. Or, they continued to assert their set of facts in the hope of overcoming criticism by force of repetition.” ” [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 Karl Rove, who tried to steer Cooper away from Wilson’s information and 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 Lewis Libby, who had been peddling the information even before Cooper’s phone call. Libby had been brought into the get-Wilson cabal in June 2003 when the White House got wind that Wilson might present a problem.

* * *

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 key attack points against Wilson.

On June 23, 2003, still two weeks before Wilson’s Op-Ed, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and may then have passed on the tip that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. But the anti-Wilson campaign gained new urgency when the ex-ambassador penned his Op-Ed piece in 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 Fitzgerald.]

There’s much more, and I do urge you to go read it. There are still far more questions here than answers, despite what the craven apologists would have you believe.