Sources of Confusion

Who was Bob Novak's source? It's a parlor game any Washington insider or media junkie can play--and most do. Novak, a conservative columnist sometimes called "the Prince of Darkness," was the journalist who kicked off the whole Valerie Plame imbroglio that has obsessed Washington and so far resulted in the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, Scooter Libby, for perjury. It was Novak who identified Plame as the CIA operative who helped send her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Africa to check on reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from the country of Niger. Depending on whom you believe, the leak was (1) an insidious smear by the White House to retaliate against a critic of the Iraq war or (2) mildly interesting gossip.

The game became more intriguing last week when the legendary Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward was dragged in. Woodward revealed that he had been told about Plame and her role before Novak had, but that in order to protect his source and avoid a subpoena from the grand jury, he had told no one, not even his editor, Leonard Downie. Woodward's admission, along with an unusual apology, set off a wave of journalistic clucking among news organizations, including his own. Woodward has long been an object of envy and resentment because he has been free to absent himself from The Washington Post newsroom while he reports his megaselling books.

But more than journalistic schadenfreude was at stake. Though he gave testimony to the special prosecutor, Woodward refused to publicly identify his source. But he has repeatedly emphasized on talk shows and in interviews that when all the facts become known, the Plame affair will be seen as much ado about very little. In private conversations with journalists, Novak has suggested the same.

So who is Novak's source--and Woodward's source--and why will his identity take the wind out of the brewing storm? One by one last week, a parade of current and former senior officials, including the CIA's George Tenet and national-security adviser Stephen Hadley, denied being the source. A conspicuous exception was former deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage, whose office would only say, "We're not commenting." He was one of a handful of top officials who had access to the information. He is an old source and friend of Woodward's, and he fits Novak's description of his source as "not a partisan gunslinger." Woodward has indicated that he knows the identity of Novak's source, which further suggests his source and Novak's were one and the same.

If Armitage was the original leaker, that undercuts the argument that outing Plame was a plot by the hard-liners in the veep's office to "out" Plame. Armitage was, if anything, a foe of the neocons who did not want to go to war in Iraq. He had no motive to discredit Wilson. On "Larry King Live" last month, Woodward was dismissive of the special prosecutor's investigation, suggesting that the original leak was not the result of a "smear campaign" but rather a "kind of gossip, as chatter... I don't see an underlying crime here."

That doesn't mean special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald will fold his tent. Last week he announced he would present evidence to a new grand jury. While Scooter Libby's lawyers exulted that Woodward's revelation helped their client's case, Libby still faces strong evidence that he lied to the Feds. And it's not clear that White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove is out of the woods. When and if the true identity of Novak and Woodward's source becomes known (if indeed they are one in the same), the two-year-old mystery may be resolved. But the game is not over yet.