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.
Tell it to Bob Novak! In his column revealing that Wilson was married to a CIA operative, Novak did not state this information omnisciently. Instead, he wrote that it came from "two senior administration officials," one of whom, we now know, was Armitage. Novak's definition of "deep background" apparently allows that. The State Department's definition doesn't.
My point is not to excoriate Novak, or the State Department, for misunderstanding what "deep background" means. It is to demonstrate that "deep background" possesses no fixed, agreed-upon meaning. Therefore, a mutual agreement that something is on "deep background" starts on shaky ground to begin with. When that agreement is "tacit," which is to say that it's assumed in silence, it has no meaning at all. There is no way for Novak to know that Armitage expects confidentiality; there isn't even a way for Novak to know what Armitage's particular idea of "confidentiality" might entail.
Why would Novak persuade himself that he had some sort of body-language "tacit" agreement not to reveal Armitage's identity? Because the likely reality is less flattering. In his Sept. 14 column, Novak explains that before their encounter, Novak had never met Armitage. Novak had tried to arrange an interview, "but he rebuffed me—summarily and with disdain, I thought." Then, suddenly—and apparently (Novak doesn't spell this out) through the intercession of their mutual acquaintance Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Reagan—Novak got ushered into Armitage's office. What went through Novak's mind as Armitage mouthed off about Plame? First, of course: "Hot story." But second: "Armitage will get into trouble if I quote him by name. If I get Armitage into trouble, he won't talk to me anymore, and maybe other people in Washington won't talk to me either. And anyway, what's important is this news about Wilson's wife. So, I'll protect Armitage in writing this story."
Granting immunity to sources who might be useful in the future is a routine form of petty corruption in Washington, one that I've participated in myself on occasion. Simply as a practical matter, it can be necessary to keep information flowing. But one thing it definitely can't be called is an agreement. To be sure, the source may assume (recklessly) that he is so important that the reporter he's dishing to wouldn't dare quote him by name. And the journalist may assume the same thing back. But that isn't an agreement. It's two separate calculations, one based on egotism and the other based on perceived self-interest. In no way can it be construed as the sort of contract that a court of law might recognize and protect in the interests of the First Amendment.
Novak's loosey-goosey notion that his conversation with Armitage was "tacitly" confidential gets him off one hook. Novak came in for a lot of "rat fink"-type criticism from fellow journalists, first when he was suspected of having given his source up to the special prosecutor, and later when he confirmed that he had done so. But I don't see how any responsible lawyer could tell Novak he had a snowball's chance in hell of avoiding jail time if Novak couldn't state truthfully that he was enforcing an explicit promise. And I don't see how Novak could justify to himself the idea of going to jail to protect a source to whom he had promised … nothing.
But Novak's "tacit" confidentiality agreement puts him on a different hook: How can he justify not having revealed his source to his readers? One could forgive Novak for leaving Armitage's name out of his initial column, because Novak was genuinely (if naively) surprised when Plame's unmasking by a government official was deemed not just titillating, but scandalous. But it quickly became clear, even to Novak, that the identity of his initial source was a matter of urgent interest to the public. It was news. And Novak sat on it, voluntarily.
Novak himself doesn't see it that way. Instead of blaming himself, he blames Armitage for keeping mum:
Armitage's silence the next 2-1/2 years caused intense pain for his colleagues in government and enabled partisan Democrats in Congress to falsely accuse Rove of being my primary source. … Armitage's tardy self-disclosure is tainted because it is deceptive.
True enough. But one can say precisely the same thing about Novak.
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.