Politics

And the leaker is….

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Richard Armitage.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the source who revealed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in 2003, touching off a federal investigation, two sources familiar with Armitage’s role tell CNN.

The sources said Armitage revealed Plame’s role at the CIA almost inadvertently in a casual conversation with Novak, and it is not clear if he knew her identity was classified at the time.

So what does this mean?

Well, it does lighten the accusations levied at the Bush administration, namely that they revealed Plame’s identity in order to discredit her husband. Armitage is an unlikely avenue for a Bush administration smear campaign, since he was a critic of the decision to invade Iraq.

But it doesn’t appear to change some fundamental facts.

Cheney did ask Libby to find out about Plame’s role in her husband’s trip. That inquiry is why Armitage knew Plame’s identity. Then, once Novak began asking questions, both Libby and Rove were only too happy to discuss the situation with reporters. And then tried to hide that fact later.

Nor does this directly change the basis for the charges against Libby: that he lied about his contacts with reporters.

Nor does it change the fact that a CIA agent’s identity was revealed, however inadvertently.

Still, the likelihood that there was a crime committed here seems remote. If Libby had nothing to cover up, the cover-up charges make little sense.

It appears that what you have here is a bunch of senior officials being surprisingly careless with what they ought to have suspected was sensitive information, then trying to hide their actions; and the irony that Cheney’s inquiry is what started the ball rolling on a scandal that roiled the White House for years. Incompetence and cowardice, yes, but not criminal intent.

Whether the Libby case should go to trial or be dropped depends on the basis for the charges. If they are independent of the Armitage revelation — in other words, if Libby really did lie on the stand — then he should be charged. But the prosecution will have to demonstrate that Libby had some sort of motive for doing so.