The Leak That Ruined Careers and Lives

It's one of those Washington stories that needs to be reported — should be reported — but is incredibly difficult to tell on TV. I did file a report on this for Brit's show, but luckily I also have a blog where I can offer additional thoughts. I am speaking, of course about the recent revelation by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that he was the primary source for the Bob Novak column that outed Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative.

First thing you should know is that Richard Armitage is widely respected in Washington as a straight shooter. I take him at his word that he did not know of Plame's covert status. He says he had seen her name in CIA reports, and said that in his many years of service, he had never seen a covert agent's name printed in such report.

Had Armitage simply come forward and admitted early on that he was Novak's source, there would not have been a special prosecutor whose investigations cost the taxpayers a boatload of money, Karl Rove would not have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Scooter Libby would still be the vice president's chief of staff and Judith Miller would have not been required to spend weeks in jail to protect a source. Tons of ink and countless hours of television news time would not have been spent expounding endlessly about something that turned out to be much less than advertised. It is not an exaggeration to say that lives and careers have been ruined by this witch-hunt for sources.

Who is to blame for all this? Well, a lot of fingers in Washington are now pointing at Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. He knew very early on that Armitage was Novak's primary source, but ordered Armitage, Novak and Secretary of State Colin Powell — in whom Armitage had confided — not to talk about the case.

This week, after everyone in Washington finally put the pieces of the puzzle together, Fitzgerald finally allowed Armitage to speak publicly about the matter. The moment that Armitage told his story to CBS News, Novak was released from his promise to protect his source.

I spoke to Novak on the phone Friday morning. He said he was frustrated that he was required to hold his tongue for 2 1/2 years.

"When you get some information on background, not for attribution, you're stuck to it until the source releases you and the source never released me," Novak said. "What was really frustrating is that the special prosecutor, Mr. Fitzgerald, knew that information almost from the beginning of his investigation, and so informed me when he interviewed me privately, and asked me not to even report that I had been interviewed by him." Novak continued, "There's always been a lot less here than meets the eye."

Worth re-examining are the actions of Plame's husband Joseph Wilson, who has repeatedly stirred the pot on this issue. First things first: There is now substantial evidence to suggest that he was wrong when the former ambassador reported back to the CIA that the Iraqis had not attempted to purchase so-called "yellow cake" uranium ore from Niger. The Washington Post's editorial board has concluded that the person most responsible for outing Valerie Plame is Joseph Wilson.

In Washington, many have made the charge that there was some type of organized Bush administration campaign underway to smear Wilson and punish his wife. But the growing body of evidence to date suggests that this was an inadvertent leak that was blown completely out of proportion by someone who turned out to be a prominent critic of the Iraq war.

The overall reporting blared when charges were leveled that high-ranking officials within the Bush administration had acted improperly. Now, as verifiable facts discredit those charges, the reporting is a great deal more muted.

As for Scooter Libby, maybe there is more here than initially meets the eye. But, I ask: Is there something inherently wrong with the sworn statements of a public servant being scrutinized and cross-examined until some minor misstatement of fact is uncovered? Is that what a special prosecutor is supposed to do?

You may be wondering, "Why, Brian, do you feel so passionately about this case?"

Fair question. You may not like my answer:

I believe that a free press is built into the checks and balances of our American system of government. Reporters must be able to confidentially speak with government officials. Occasionally, stuff trickles into the public record that is embarrassing — or in some cases it can be argued — is harmful to national security. I know I would never knowingly harm the nation's security for the sake of a good scoop, but it happens.

When reporters cannot speak confidentially with elected and unelected officials, you lose. Do you trust your government enough to let it run free without a determined free press looking over its shoulder? Look at other countries where freedom of the press is restricted before you give your answer.

We're not perfect. Neither is government. Leak investigations have the end effect of closing off the government from the governed.

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