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Anti-Bush Conspiracy Story Fizzles Out

The shouting is now over: the CIA-leak story, better known as Plamegate, was a big dud. Those who promoted the story, such as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, have egg all over their faces. But don’t look for any apologies.

With the confirmation that deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, as widely speculated [1], had been the primary source for Bob Novak’s July 14, 2003 column identifying Joe Wilson’s wife as a CIA employee, the allegations of a White House conspiracy against Wilson have collapsed. For almost three years, the liberal media relentlessly hyped the story, thinking they would find that Karl Rove was behind it all. Instead, it turns out he was a secondary source for Novak, and that he merely confirmed in an off-handed manner that Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame had been behind Wilson’s CIA trip to Africa to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium “yellowcake” there.

The confirmation of Armitage’s role came in a book, Hubris, by Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and The Nation magazine’s David Corn. They, the editorial board of the New York Times, Keith Olbermann and others in the mainstream media were prepared to accept the idea that the original leak in the case came from Armitage, who served under Colin Powell at State, and who was someone not part of the Bush-Cheney inner circle nor a supporter of going into Iraq. But they wanted to hold on to the notion that this by no means cleared Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, or Bush himself of orchestrating a campaign to discredit Wilson for having attempted to undermine part of the reason Bush gave for going to war against Iraq. 

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard did an excellent job of parceling out the real blame in an editorial [2] entitled “The Plamegate Hall of Shame.” His list includes Armitage, Powell, and the John Ashcroft Justice Department for knowing from the start who was responsible for the leak of Plame’s name, but not bringing it to the attention of the White House and saving the country from the two-and-a-half year investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is on Barnes’ list, too, because he too knew from the start, but proceeded with an investigation that is still continuing. 

Barnes’ list, of course, also includes Wilson himself, who Barnes calls “a fraud.” Referring to the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Barnes noted that they found “that nearly everything Wilson wrote or said about Bush, Cheney, Iraq, and his own trip to Africa was untrue.”

Ironically, the Washington Post, which Barnes singles out along with the New York Times for relying on Wilson’s charges “to wage journalistic jihad against the White House and Bush political adviser Karl Rove,” acknowledged [3] early on that the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee strongly undermined Wilson’s main contentions.

While the Post may have lapsed, following that article, into waging “journalistic jihad,” it has redeemed itself since Armitage’s role has been confirmed. First, it ran an editorial [4] on September 1st, in which the Post acknowledged that “one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House?that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity to ruin her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson?is untrue.”

While it said the White House was not blameless, and that it had carelessly handled classified information, the paper said that “Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming?falsely, as it turned out?that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials.” They concluded that “It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.”

Since then, the dean of all political columnists, David Broder, has made a similar case. He wrote a column [5] in which he suggested that left-wing journalists Sidney Blumenthal and Joe Conason, and several publications, including Newsweek, Salon and American Prospect, owe Karl Rove an apology.

On September 14, Novak further clarified in a column [6] what had happened with Armitage, whom he had continued to protect as a source until Armitage confirmed his role as the original leaker in an interview with CBS News. Armitage, he said, wasn’t telling the whole story. It had not been “idle chit-chat” but clear and deliberate conversation, even telling Novak the CIA division for which Mrs. Wilson worked, that she had “recommended” her husband for the mission, and that “he noted that the story of Mrs. Wilson’s role fit the style of the old Evans-Novak column.”

According to Novak, “they cannot fit Armitage into the left-wing fantasy of a well-crafted White House conspiracy to destroy Joe and Valerie Wilson. The news that he and not Karl Rove was the leaker was devastating news for the left.” And he ended by criticizing Armitage for not having come clean between October of 2003, when talk of an investigation heated up, and December 30th of that year when Fitzgerald was appointed as Special Counsel. “Armitage’s tardy self-disclosure is tainted,” wrote Novak, “because it is deceptive.”

Also deserving of recognition in this drawn-out affair is Christopher Hitchens, whose columns for Slate have provided some of the best reporting that undermined Wilson’s claims, particularly the one about whether Saddam had been seeking “yellowcake” uranium in Africa. In fact he had. Hitchens’ most recent column [7] on the subject provided a great wrap-up of the whole episode.

Veteran journalist Daniel Schorr, who recently turned 90, expressed how many of the administration critics feel about this latest turn of events. When asked by Scott Simon on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition about the news that Armitage turned out to be the source of the leak, Schorr responded [8] that the reaction was “Very disappointing. This was supposed to be a big scandal involving neo-cons in the Bush administration and how they were out to get Valerie Plame. But now we have a former deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell not known to be neo-con and so on, and says it was just in the course of gossip with Bob Novak that he mentioned it with no purpose in mind at all. That really was disappointing.”

Of course, that is the way Armitage wants people to see it, as just an accident. The trouble for him is that he has now been sued by lawyers for the Wilsons, who seem to think he was part of the alleged conspiracy.