Richard Armitage: Deus Ex Machina
Ancient Greek and Roman playwrights often extricated their protagonists from sticky situations through the use of a deus ex machina, the Latin phrase for "god from a machine." Nowadays, we apply the term to any out-of-the-blue solution to a problem. Dei ex machinae -- I think that's the plural -- may satisfy a theater audience, but in real life, they're hard to swallow.
That was precisely my difficulty when former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was "revealed" in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War -- the new book by the Nation's David Corn and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff -- as one of two senior administration officials who, on July 8, 2003, told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame Wilson worked as a CIA analyst on weapons of mass destruction and that she had arranged the trip to Niger of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was her husband. I have no doubt that Armitage did disclose this classified information to Novak on that day, but everything else about the story (not the book itself) -- including its details, its provenance, and the reaction it has provoked -- is highly suspect.
The first red flag is that this "bombshell" is not exactly a bombshell. What is being hailed by pundits as the "poison pill" that destroys Fitzgerald's case -- the news that Armitage was the first person to reveal Mrs. Wilson's identity to Novak -- is essentially a confirmation of stories that have floated through both commercial and independent media since November of 2005, shortly after the indictment was released. Furthermore, as in-court statements by Libby's attorneys clearly indicate, they've known that the first person to leak to Novak -- "official A" in the indictment -- was Armitage all along. In addition, as the Libby defense team well knows, the trial judge has made it equally clear that possible leaks by Armitage or anyone else are irrelevant to whether or not Libby made intentional false statements.
Another reason for skepticism about the Armitage story is that it is filled with suspicious gaps and internal contradictions -- far too many to catalog. Here are only a few:
Armitage talked to Novak on July 8, 2003, two days after Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times questioning President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to acquire "yellowcake" uranium in Africa. Novak then relayed the information to Rove, who replied -- according to Novak -- "Oh, you know that too?" Novak then used this confirmation as a basis for disclosing these nuggets in a July 14th column. Yet, as the story is told in Hubris, Armitage had no idea he was Novak's source until October 1, 2003 when he read a new Novak article that described one of the leakers as "no partisan gunslinger." At that point, Armitage was allegedly pained and distressed to realize that Novak must be referring to him.
Let's stop right there. A public furor about the leak had begun to simmer in mid- July, almost immediately after Novak's column appeared. Throughout August and September, the controversy had escalated into calls for an investigation. Yet Armitage claims to have been blissfully unaware that any of this brouhaha related to him. He gave not a thought to his conversation with Novak -- and apparently did not talk about the leak controversy with anyone -- not even on Friday September 26, 2003 when news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the Plame leak. (Novak himself hired a lawyer on that day.)
By Monday, September 29, according to Hubris, "The Plame leak was the news consuming Washington." At the daily White House briefing, press spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that "the President expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No one would be authorized to do such a thing." McClellan vouched for both Rove and the Office of the Vice President as having no involvement in the leak. Yet Armitage -- who, as Hubris reports, had told Iran-Contra investigators in 1987, "I am pretty nosy and frankly I think I've learned the lesson in a bureaucracy that the more you know, the more you can put things together." -- was reportedly completely oblivious?
After the aha! moment when Armitage realized he was the only non-partisan gunslinger in town-- so the story goes -- he immediately called his then-boss and close friend, Secretary of State Colin Powell. Both promptly called... Ken Duberstein.
Why? They insist that they were not trying to get help setting their stories straight; instead, they claim, Powell wanted his old friend "Duberdog" (as he affectionately calls him) to contact Novak and ask if Armitage was indeed his source. Why bring in Duberdog? If Armitage were genuinely surprised by this sudden revelation and truly felt he had nothing to hide, why didn't he just call Novak himself?
Next, Powell and Armitage called the State Department's lawyer, William Taft IV, who notified the Justice Department. Taft also called White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Corn and Isikoff write that Taft was purposefully "oblique" with Gonzales because neither he, nor Powell, nor Armitage wanted the White House to know about what Armitage had done. Therefore, Taft allegedly told Gonzales "someone" from the State Department would be providing information about the leak to the Justice Department. Then he asked if Gonzales wanted to know more and Gonzales -- Isikoff writes in Newsweek -- "playing by the book," said no. Powell, Armitage, and Taft were happy that the White House would be kept in the dark, and so, according to Hubris, Armitage's story remained a secret to everyone but the investigating FBI agents to whom he promptly confessed all.
Deus Ex Machinations?
By this point in the story, all of my vestigial prosecutorial hackles were fully raised.
For starters, by early October, Armitage not only had an obvious reason to shade the truth; he also knew precisely how to do so. The requirements for proof of an Intelligence Identities Protection Act violation had been much-discussed by then, so Armitage was well aware that there was no violation if he had not acted intentionally. It is not surprising, therefore, that this Deputy Secretary of State, a savvy and scrappy thirty-year veteran of government affairs and political intrigue, suddenly transformed himself into a cross between Mr. Rogers and the famed gossip columnist Letitia Baldridge. Even though he had met with Novak on a day when the Bush administration was in full crisis mode about Joseph Wilson's criticisms and was actually answering a question asked by Novak, Armitage insisted he had merely told Novak offhandedly, as "just gossip," that Wilson's trip had been arranged by his wife who was a CIA analyst working on weapons of mass destruction.
Armitage did not confess on October 2, 2003. Instead, while professing to be forthright, and after discussing his story with at least three people, he admitted to no wrongdoing whatsoever. Fortunately for Armitage, however -- according to Hubris -- the prosecution chose not to charge him because it could not prove he knew Mrs. Wilson was a covert agent.
At the same time, from the perspective of the White House, Armitage's "admission" would get Rove and Libby off the hook. If the investigation had focused solely on the genesis of the disclosures that led to Novak's column, as the Bush administration obviously thought it would, Libby would not have been at risk at all and Armitage's story would have absolved Rove as well. Armitage claimed he had acted inadvertently and Rove, on his part, was merely confirming a rumor to a trusted columnist. This is, in fact, just what Rove and Libby have been saying all along.
Coincidentally, this MO for the two leaks to Novak precisely mirrors the information-laundering technique Rove is famous for using, especially with Novak. As Corn and Isikoff explain, Rove will frequently give information to Novak off the record, suggesting that Novak call someone else to confirm it, thereby using "Novak to play political brushback without leaving any fingerprints."
And what of Armitage's voluntary trip to the FBI in October 2003? The nonconfession confession, such as the one he offered that day, is an old ploy in multiple-defendant cases. You offer up one person as a fall guy -- a scapegoat -- who suffers only minor scratches because he admits to nothing more than inadvertence or confusion, all the while appearing to be remorseful and disarmingly honest. Everyone else then blames that person, maybe even seeming to be angry with him. If the plan works, the case will go away and all can ride off happily together into the sunset.
The recent entrance of Richard Armitage into the CIA leak story as if he were a new figure -- when he was not -- looks less like a case of deus ex machina than of deus ex machinations. Despite his official refusal to be interviewed for Hubris, Armitage obviously allowed his friends and confidants -- including the head of the State Department's intelligence branch Carl Ford, who (by his own admission in the book) has known about Armitage's involvement for at least a year -- to leak the story in a way favorable to him.
Even more important, according to Hubris, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales also knew that a State Department official was involved in the leak, but allegedly said nary a word about it to the President. Notwithstanding its cavalier tone, the account of Gonzales' declining State Department attorney Taft's offer of information is extremely damaging to Gonzales. Under these circumstances, such a refusal would not be "playing by the book" at all -- at least not by any law book.
Gonzales was counsel to the President. In other words, President Bush was his client and the only person whose interests he represented. Beginning in late September, the President was publicly insisting that he wanted to know who the leakers were and he wanted to "know the truth." Therefore, the matter of the leak inquiry was of the utmost concern to Gonzales' client -- the President -- and, as such, Gonzales was ethically obligated to communicate Taft's offer of information to him. Any failure to do so would violate the Code of Professional Responsibility -- not, apparently, the book by which Gonzales was playing. Yet the White House has let this account of a serious ethical breach stand without offering comment or defense, and none of the President's surrogate spokespersons have issued a peep.
Who Is Ken Duberstein and Why Is He Here?
What is the final tell -- the fact that reveals what is actually going on here?
It is, I believe, the introduction of Ken Duberstein into the mix. The most striking defect in Armitage's confession is that it provides no believable explanation for why he happened to be speaking with Novak on July 8, 2003 -- the very time when the administration was struggling to control the damage from Wilson's op-ed. Novak says he had been contacted out of the blue by Armitage's office two weeks previously, which would have been approximately June 22, but he doesn't know why. Hubris reports that Duberstein, sometime after the investigation began, told "others" that he "may have" arranged the meeting as a favor to Powell. This vague suggestion by persons unknown is, of itself, nearly meaningless. But what makes it more suspect is that Duberstein himself has never made this statement publicly, nor has Armitage -- and Novak says he knows nothing about it.
Yet Duberstein has allowed this story to be offered and repeated -- in the New York Times and elsewhere. In these articles, Duberstein is described as a friend and adviser to Powell and Armitage.
But Duberstein is not just their friend; he is everyone's friend. Since Ronald Reagan's second term when he famously took over as Chief of Staff and pulled the President out of the huge hole he was in as a result of the Iran-Contra affair, Duberstein has been a key adviser to and "fixer" for Republican politicians. He shepherded Clarence Thomas through the Supreme Court nomination process for the first President Bush. He began the 2000 presidential primary season as Arizona Senator John McCain's campaign adviser, but when McCain was deciding whether to drop out, Duberstein acted as a conduit to the Bush campaign. Not long after that, he joined Rove and Vice President Cheney's key advisor Mary Matalin, in the "Gang of Six," Bush's inner circle of campaign counselors. (At the same time, Armitage, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice were members of the President's foreign policy brain trust.) In May of 2003, when Wilson's allegations were surfacing publicly, Duberstein -- along with Karl Rove, Andy Card, and others -- was already meeting with Bush to plan for the 2004 election. In 2005, when the Armitage story began leaking out, Duberstein, Rove, and friends were, of course, gearing up for the 2006 congressional elections.
Duberstein is not "merely" a key Republican adviser; he is also one of the most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington. He lobbies for, among others, the American Gaming Association, the Direct Marketing Association, the National Cable Television Association, AARP, St. Paul Companies, Fannie Mae, and Time-Warner, as well as numerous pharmaceutical companies and defense contractors. One of his clients is Boeing. Armitage consulted for Boeing before he was appointed Deputy Secretary of State. Another of Duberstein's clients is General Motors. Funny thing, in the 1990s, Andy Card -- who was considered to be as powerful as Karl Rove while he was White House Chief of Staff -- was the head of government relations for General Motors. Duberstein also lobbies for ConocoPhillips, one of the three oil companies that benefited most directly from the reopening of trade relations with Libya, a project the State Department was working on during Armitage's tenure there.
So rewinding to spring 2003, when Wilson began speaking out publicly, were Karl Rove, "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney, and others in the Office of the Vice President the only Executive Branch officials who had reason to discredit him, undermine his story, and possibly just get him to pipe down? Of course not.
Certainly, there was infighting in the administration. Armitage and Powell were at odds with Cheney, Libby, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and others. They are now seen as comparative moderates and, since leaving, have vigorously attempted to distance themselves from responsibility for the invasion of, and ongoing war in, Iraq.
In the lead-up to the invasion, however, every time Powell and Armitage were called upon by White House Chief of Staff Card, Libby, Cheney, or the President to advance the case for war, they did. Armitage made speeches and testified before Congress, arguing that the threat from Iraq was so urgent we couldn't wait any longer for the United Nations to act. Powell, as we all know, went to the UN and made the speech that convinced a then-doubting public to support the President's decision to invade.
All along, however, Powell and Armitage knew -- because their own intelligence branch had been telling them -- that the facts they were citing as grounds for war were questionable, if not completely false. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had repeatedly explained why aluminum tubes the Iraqis were purchasing were neither suitable nor intended for nuclear-weapons manufacture, as administration officials, including Powell, were contending. INR had also warned that the uranium-from-Niger claim was baseless. Indeed, Powell's and Armitage's own analysts had concluded there was no basis for asserting that Iraq even had a nuclear-weapons program. Joseph Wilson's public criticisms were, in short, making Powell and Armitage look very bad.
Perhaps more significant, Wilson's persistent comments were inviting inquiry into the entire case for war and, in the process, potentially jeopardizing Bush's chances for reelection. Keeping a Republican president in office and a Republican majority in Congress was -- it now seems clear -- the overriding motivation of all of the actors, including Armitage, in this whole sordid affair. Ultimately, every phase of the CIA leak case, including the propaganda campaign that is occurring right now, has been about maintaining the wealth and power of the Republican Party.
Remember I mentioned how everyone may be able to ride off into the sunset if one person offers himself as a scapegoat? Consider some of Richard Armitage's activities these days. He is on the board of ManTech International, whose U.S. defense and homeland security contracts have increased roughly 20% each quarter since he signed on in the spring of 2005. Along with his good friend -- and everyone else's -- lobbyist Kenneth Duberstein, he is also on the board of ConocoPhillips, the company that has now been able to reopen its oil pipelines in Libya. Finally -- just to round out the family circle -- Duberstein is a Trustee Emeritus of the Hudson Institute, the corporate-funded conservative think tank where Scooter Libby now works.
Both Armitage and Duberstein, as well as numerous other powerful Republicans, are also now acting as informal advisers for Arizona Senator John McCain's possible 2008 presidential campaign. Reportedly, McCain and Rove have made peace for the sake of the Party -- and McCain's candidacy. Things would work out so much better for everyone if that pesky Libby case and, indeed, the entire Special Counsel investigation, went away. As Bush, Cheney, Libby, Armitage, Duberstein, and so many others well know from the Iran-Contra affair, the President doesn't have to wait until anyone is convicted, or even charged, to exercise his constitutional power of clemency. On December 24, 1992, just weeks before former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger's trial for charges arising out the Iran-Contra investigation was set to begin, President George H.W. Bush pardoned all of the defendants, not only for past convictions, but for any charges that might subsequently arise out of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh's investigation.
Given that our Chief Executive has demonstrated an utter disregard for the truth and the law in the execution of nearly all of his presidential duties, there is every reason to believe that an October surprise is not the only one in the offing. I dearly hope I am completely wrong about this, but if the Libby trial remains set for January, a December surprise may also be in store.
Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon. She writes regularly for Tomdispatch and is the author of the upcoming book U.S. v. George W. Bush et. al., a Tomdispatch project to be published by Seven Stories Press in late November. She may be contacted at ElizabethdelaVega@Verizon.net.
Copyright 2006 Elizabeth de la Vega