Armitage Was Never "Off the Record"
Plamegate's greatest irony.
The spy-unmasking scandal Plamegate sent one reporter to jail for protecting the identity of a confidential source and very nearly put a second one behind bars for the same reason. Yet the climactic revelation—that the blabbermouth who set events in motion was former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage—has failed to draw attention to what may be the scandal's greatest outrage. This whole mess began with an interview that was conducted on the record!
Prompted by Michael Isikoff and David Corn's new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Armitage admitted two weeks ago that he was the guy who first told columnist Robert Novak that Bush administration critic and former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was married to a CIA operative. Armitage, though something of an Iraq hawk (at least before the war), was steadfastly loyal to Secretary of State Colin Powell and therefore unlikely to be playing hatchet man for the White House political mastermind Karl Rove or for the president's war-on-terrorism Svengali, Vice President Dick Cheney. As IsiCorn have noted, a likelier motive for Armitage (who had earlier, they believe, unmasked Mrs. Wilson, aka Valerie Plame, to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward) was sheer love of insider gossip.
The main spin that's come out of Armitage's unmasking has been that Plamegate turns out to have been much ado about nothing. There was no White House campaign to discredit Wilson. There were only a few people who spoke a little too freely, two of them (Rove and Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby) red-meat partisans employed by the White House, and one of them (Armitage) a Powell loyalist who was very mistrustful of the White House. This is what Bush sympathizers (including, on this issue, Slate's Christopher Hitchens) have been arguing. I'm not convinced that Armitage's indiscretion proves that the White House, independently, wasn't looking to leak Wilson's CIA connection, which (we now know Cheney thought) showed that Wilson's fact-finding mission to Niger—the basis of Wilson's criticism—was really just a CIA "junket" arranged by Wilson's wife. (This last characterization, in addition to being preposterously sexist, is untrue. Valerie Plame suggested Wilson for the assignment but was in no position to choose him.)
As the previous paragraph demonstrates, in pondering the Armitage angle, one can easily get bogged down arguing about what the White House was or wasn't up to concerning the identity of Valerie Plame. I'll close that book by stating that, just as I thought (and still think), President Bush ought to fire Karl Rove for blabbing about Plame to Time's Matthew Cooper (before Novak's column was published), so, too, do I think Powell ought to have fired Armitage for blabbing about Plame to Novak. Armitage can't be fired now, because he no longer works for the government, but apparently Powell found out about Armitage's indiscretion well before either man quit the State Department. Shame on Powell for not doing the right thing.
Now let's move on to a more interesting slice of this story—one that everybody's overlooking. Armitage blew Plame's cover in an on-the-record conversation with Novak—yet Novak refused to identify his source to readers!
That's not precisely how Novak puts it in his Sept. 14 column, published after Armitage finally came clean. But I see no other way to interpret the following passage:
I sat down with Armitage in his State Department office the afternoon of July 8 with tacit rather than explicit [italics mine] ground rules: deep background with nothing said attributed to Armitage or even an anonymous State Department official.
Tacit rather than explicit?
How can any legitimate sourcing agreement struck between a journalist and a government official be "tacit"? Something is either on the record, off the record, or on background (or "deep background"). As I've demonstrated before, even when this jargon is spoken out loud in discussions between journalists and sources, as likely as not the two sides will lack a common understanding of what it means. For example, the State Department's official "ground rules" for interviews (which I have previously likened to condoms passed out by an abstinence-preaching high-school teacher) state that when a source tells a journalist something on "deep background," it means that source
cannot be quoted or identified in any manner, not even as "an unnamed source." The information is usually couched in such phrases as "it is understood that" or "it has been learned." The information may be used to help present the story or to gain a better understanding of the subject, but the knowledge is that of the reporter, not the source.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Robert Novak by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press.