WASHINGTON – The senior Bush administration official who gave Robert Novak information about former CIA officer Valerie Plame's role in sending her husband, Amb. Joe Wilson, to Niger in 2002 was not trying to discredit Wilson, the columnist told FOX News on Wednesday.
Novak also said he doesn't believe the senior administration official, whom Novak referred to as "Mr. X," had the conversation with him about Wilson's fact-finding mission on Iraq's nuclear weapons program as part of a "conscious effort to manipulate me."
"I saw no such campaign. Nobody in the administration ever said anything critical about Wilson to me," he said.
Mr. X told Novak that Wilson's "wife worked in the office of nuclear proliferation in the CIA, and she suggested he go. That was it," Novak said.
He added that he was later told by CIA Public Information Officer Bill Harlow that Plame didn't initiate the trip but once she was asked about it, she suggested her husband be sent. A Senate Intelligence Committee report later concluded that Plame played an important role in getting Wilson sent to Africa.
Novak said he also interviewed Bush political adviser Karl Rove to discuss the trip by Wilson and to confirm that Plame was involved in sending Wilson there.
Novak said when he asked Rove about Plame, Rove responded, "Oh, you know that too."
"I took that as a confirmation that she worked at the CIA and initiated" the trip, Novak said.
The portion of the conversation dealing with Plame lasted about 20 seconds, he said. Novak said he remembers his conversation with Rove differently than Rove's lawyer reports. Attorney Robert Luskin claims Rove said to Novak, "Oh, you heard that too."
Harlow has not commented on the column Novak published Wednesday detailing their conversation, but a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Harlow repeatedly tried to talk Novak out of running the information about Plame and that Harlow's efforts did not in any way constitute confirming Plame's CIA identity.
The release of Plame's name, first revealed by Novak, and then by reporters at Time Magazine, The New York Times and elsewhere, led to a political firestorm in Washington, D.C., and a protracted investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into the possible leak of classified information.
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was a source for Times reporter Judith Miller, was indicted last year. However, he was not charged with revealing classified information. He is facing perjury and obstruction of justice charges relating to the investigation of the leak.
The investigation is ongoing, but Rove's attorney Ruskin said last month that Fitzgerald told the presidential aide that he will not be charged in the probe.
Wilson was sent to Niger ahead of the Iraq war to determine whether that African country had been approached about selling yellowcake uranium to deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
A Bush administration critic, Wilson returned and filed a report suggesting the evidence wasn't there. But other information from British intelligence confirming the allegation was included in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address to justify an invasion against Iraq.
Novak said he does not believe administration officials were shopping Plame's story around or intentionally revealing classified information about her.
"Inadvertent or not, I don't believe that it was a conscious leak," Novak said.
Mr. X is not a person "in the business of playing political dirty tricks," Novak said. "This is not a political gun-slinger. By that I mean, this official is not known as somebody who did a lot of political manipulations. He was more of a substantive person."
"It was an interview with a senior administration official who wasn't an easy guy to get to see ... it was the kind of interview that you know is not to be attributed to him ... very candid," he said, adding that he was later approached by a third party close to Mr. X who said Mr. X believes he inadvertently gave information about Plame to Novak that may be classified.
He added that the column he wrote about the mission to Niger was not very critical of Wilson, but was more of a reporting column in which Plame's name arose in the telling of the story.
"It was a nice nugget. It wasn't anything I'd lead the column with, but in the middle of the column," Novak said.
Novak said Harlow also encouraged him not to write the article, not because he was concerned that Plame was in a classified post, but because it could disrupt her future travel to Europe on vacations with her husband.
"Bill Harlow then said to me that although she would likely never have an assignment abroad, it might be embarrassing if her CIA connection was written, and he asked me not to write it," Novak said. "A lot of people ask me not to write things. I thought it was a pro forma request. He says now that he was very strong on it. I believe he was not."
Novak said that he was released from his confidentiality clause by Harlow and Rove, but that Mr. X has not relieved him of his obligation to protect his source. He added that no one has been indicted for a violation of the U.S. Intelligence Identity Act that prohibits revealing the names of secret agents, which Plame appears unlikely to have been at the time her name was revealed.
That being the case, "Mr. X, the first source, has decided that he doesn't want to reveal himself as the source," Novak said, adding that he thinks he will eventually have to come forward.
Novak said he is talking now because Fitzgerald told the columnist's lawyer that after 2 1/2 years into investigation, matters directly relating to Novak have concluded.