ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
A forthcoming book by Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and David Corn of The Nation offers an answer to a question that bedeviled Washington for the past couple of years. Who told columnist Robert Novak that the wife of Joseph Wilson was a CIA officer?
Wilson, a former ambassador, was sent to West Africa to investigate claims that Iraq was shopping for uranium there. He returned unconvinced and went public with his skepticism about Bush administration claims about Iraqi activity.
Novak has written of learning about Wilson's wife from a senior administration official who was not a partisan gunslinger. Later, he talked about the same matter with White House aide Karl Rove.
Well Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, co-author of the book which is called Hubris, joins me now and Michael, you say that when Novak referred to that senior official who was not a partisan gunslinger, he was speaking of Richard Armitage.
Mr. MICHAEL ISIKOFF (Author, Hubris): Correct. Richard Armitage was the Deputy Secretary of State, deputy to Colin Powell at the State department and ironically he was not known as one of the administration war hawks who was pushing aggressively for a war in Iraq and the intelligence that the administration was using. He was, if anything, a member of the administration's small moderate cell that actually had expressed misgivings about the march to war.
SIEGEL: What did you find out about the context in which he told Robert Novak, the columnist, that Wilson, who was talking about his trip to West Africa, indeed his wife worked for the CIA?
Mr. ISIKOFF: Well, Armitage met with Novak in his State Department office just a couple of days after Washington is in a tizzy over the Joseph Wilson column accusing the White House of ignoring his own warnings that the intelligence about yellow cake uranium and Saddam buying it from Africa was wrong. And it was quite a natural question for Novak to ask Armitage hey, what about this Wilson matter?
SIEGEL: But Wilson's wife was - well, the fact that she worked for the CIA was not known. And there's been a grand jury since and an indictment of Scooter Libby, I. Lewis Libby since, all about the disclosure of the identity of Mrs. Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson. Did Armitage know that?
Mr. ISIKOFF: There no evidence that Armitage knew that she was a covert officer for the CIA. What he did know was what he had gleaned from a classified State Department memo, which did identify Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA officer who specialized in weapons of mass destruction issues. And Armitage passed this along, he told others later, as gossip. The memo suggested that Valerie Wilson may have had some role in her husband being sent on the mission. This suggested to some people in the White House that this was some sort of insider boondoggle or junket deal.
What you really had in this whole affair was two separate tracks. Richard Armitage gossiping and simultaneously, high-level officials in the White House trying to use the same information to discredit Joseph Wilson.
SIEGEL: Armitage, as I've read from what you've written about it, Armitage, it takes him a while to figure out that he is actually the source of the information. It hadn't occurred to him at first.
Mr. ISIKOFF: Right. There was an extraordinary series of events the day Robert Novak publishes a second column on October 1, 2003, and that's where Novak discloses this tantalizing clue that his source was a senior administration official who was not a partisan gunslinger.
At that point, Armitage realizes oh my God, he's talking about me, and he frantically calls Colin Powell, his good friend and boss, from home that morning and tells him that. Powell calls in Will Taft, the State Department legal counselor. There's a flurry of anxious meetings and phone calls, and that culminates with Taft informing the Justice Department that we here at State, and in particular Richard Armitage, have some information relative to your inquiry.
SIEGEL: The story of Armitage seems to reinforce the argument that the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's employment at the CIA, the act per se didn't get anyone in trouble. Lying about it got Scooter Libby indicted.
Mr. ISIKOFF: It's the classic Washington story. The cover-up always gets you in more trouble than the original act itself, and that's exactly what happened here.
SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ISIKOFF: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: Michael Isikoff of Newsweek and David Corn of The Nation are the co-authors of the new book Hubris, which is coming out next week. It's about the battles over intelligence prior to the war in Iraq.