Undercover officers in Plame’s category, known as “NOCs” for “non-official cover,” often operate in great danger outside the protection of the U.S. embassies. Normally, the CIA zealously protects their cover, sharing the identities only on a strict need-to-know basis.
“The CIA is obsessive about protecting its NOCs,” one former senior U.S. official told me. “There’s almost nothing they care about more.”
But there was something that the Bush administration seemed to care about more, and that was stopping criticism of President Bush in its tracks.
On June 13, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage – Grossman’s boss – mentioned in an interview with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that Wilson’s wife helped pick the ex-ambassador for the assignment.
“Why would they send him?” Woodward asked. “Because his wife’s a [expletive] analyst at the agency,” Armitage responded. “She is a WMD analyst out there.”
Woodward didn’t use the information, but Armitage’s comment is believed to have been the first reference by an administration official to a reporter about Wilson’s wife whose identity was a classified government secret.
It was not clear, however, whether the tough-talking deputy secretary of state was just shooting off his mouth, trying to impress a famous journalist, or if Armitage was part of an emerging strategy by the White House to undermine Wilson’s credibility by portraying his Niger trip as a case of nepotism.
When Armitage’s early role was publicly revealed three years later, a conventional wisdom quickly took shape in Washington that Armitage was acting on his own, that he had no connection to the White House political machinations, and that he had been a dissenter on the Iraq War. But there was reason to believe otherwise.
A well-placed conservative source, who had been an early supporter of George W. Bush and who knew both Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove well, described a different reality to me.
The source said Armitage and Rove were much closer than many Washington insiders understood. Armitage and Rove developed a working relationship in the late 1990s when Bush was lining up Colin Powell to support a Bush presidential candidacy and to be his Secretary of State, the source said.
In those negotiations, Armitage stood in for Powell and Rove represented Bush. After that, the two men provided a back channel for passing sensitive information between the White House and the State Department, the source said.
To illustrate the point, the conservative source recounted an incident early in the Bush administration when he warned Rove to be leery of Armitage, whom the source regarded as untrustworthy.
Shortly afterwards, the source got an angry call from Armitage who had been told by Rove about the warning. Though the source earlier had witnessed the Rove-Armitage connection over the Powell recruitment, he still was surprised that Rove felt so loyal to Armitage that he would immediately hop on the phone to alert Armitage to the criticism.
Subsequently, the source said he was shut out of the White House. He blamed Rove and Armitage for the blackballing.
The significance of the Rove-Armitage friendship to the Wilson-Plame case was that it undercut the conventional wisdom that Armitage had no link to Bush’s inner circle and that therefore his comments about Wilson’s wife must have been just gossip.
“Armitage isn’t a gossip,” the conservative source said, “but he is a leaker. There’s a difference.”