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CIA Leak Case Source No. 1 Still a Mystery

Columnist reveals that he cooperated with the special prosecutor but chooses not to name the Bush official who started it all.

July 13, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Columnist Robert Novak's decision to break his silence about his role in the CIA leak investigation has left one crucial question unanswered: Who was the administration official who gave him the tip that has occupied a special prosecutor and Beltway pundits for three years?

Novak's July 14, 2003, column publicly identifying CIA officer Valerie Plame triggered a federal investigation into whether the Bush administration had retaliated against a critic of its Iraq policy by blowing the covert status of his wife.

But the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has declined to finger the primary source, and this week one of the few people in a position to unravel the mystery would identify only supporting players.

On Wednesday, both in his syndicated column and on Fox News Channel's "Special Report," Novak acknowledged for the first time that he had cooperated with Fitzgerald, telling the special prosecutor that he had talked about Plame with administration officials before he wrote a column criticizing her husband -- and publicly identifying her.

He agreed to talk with Fitzgerald about his conversations with the officials, he said, only after learning that the special prosecutor had independently confirmed who they were.

But the failure to publicly name the person who initially identified Plame and her employer has left open major questions of motive and circumstances behind one of the biggest scandals of the Bush years -- whether the disclosure was a political dirty trick, a momentary lapse in judgment or something in between. Fitzgerald has concluded that the disclosure did not violate a federal law protecting the identity of covert operatives.

Plame and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, are believed to be considering a civil suit against White House officials, in part to get to the bottom of the mystery. But such a suit faces a number of legal obstacles; depending on the basis for the suit, it may have to be filed by Friday to comply with a three-year statute of limitations.

Novak's column was published eight days after Wilson's op-ed article in the New York Times accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence in Iraq. Wilson based his findings on a CIA-backed trip he took to Africa in 2002 to assess reports that Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear material; he concluded that those reports were unfounded.

In his interview on Fox News, Novak recalled that he wanted to know more about why the CIA would send Wilson to Africa -- so he arranged an hour-long interview with a person he described only as "a senior administration official."

The source, Novak said, gave him "a nice nugget" -- that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and was responsible for sending him on the trip. (Wilson and Plame deny the suggestion that the trip was based on nepotism.)

In his column Wednesday, Novak said he then learned Plame's full name from Wilson's entry in "Who's Who in America."

Both on Fox and in his column, Novak said a conversation with White House political aide Karl Rove -- a connection that had previously been disclosed -- implicitly confirmed her employment. He also said he confirmed that Plame worked at the CIA with then-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, who he said tried to talk him out of publishing.

But in clearing the air this week, Novak chose not to clear up the identity of his primary source, saying that he did not think it appropriate to do so because that person had declined to come forward voluntarily.

However, Novak said he did not think that the information was given to him as part of a deliberate smear campaign.

"I don't believe there was a conscious effort to manipulate me," he told Fox News. "This official was not known as somebody who did a lot of political manipulations. He is more of a substantive person."

Substantive or not, the fact that the identity of the person who arguably started the whole affair has not been discovered remains a major irony of the long-running case. Fitzgerald is believed to have learned the source's name long ago but has apparently decided to wrap up his investigation without revealing the name publicly.

Lawyers for the only administration figure indicted in the case -- former vice presidential Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- asked Fitzgerald for the name to prepare a defense against perjury and obstruction charges. A judge has ruled that Novak need not provide it to them.

Last month, Wilson and Plame -- who retired from the CIA last year, saying that her career had been ruined by Novak's disclosure -- indicated through their lawyer that they were considering legal action against Rove and other officials.

Although it is far from clear how such a suit would be structured and who the defendants would be, Novak would probably be a key witness. Some people close to Wilson and Plame think they would like to subpoena Novak and ask him under oath to identify the source who started it all. The law seems to be working in their favor: Judges are increasingly saying that journalists have no right to withhold the names of their sources.

"We are keeping all of our options open," Wilson said when asked about prospects for a lawsuit in an interview with The Times last month, "and I am leaning forward as I say that."

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