At this point, the Nation's David Corn, a friend of Wilson's, reframed the tale, giving it a more lurid cast and a plotline that would drive media coverage--and in turn Fitzgerald's investigation--for the next three years. Valerie Plame, he reported, was a "covert agent" who had been deliberately "outed" as "thuggish" payback for her husband's brave whistle blowing. Moreover, this outing probably violated the law, placing her, intelligence agents everywhere, and national security at risk. This blonde Emma Peel-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks-by-lying-warmongers version of the story (assisted by a timely leak from the CIA that Director Tenet had referred the case to the Justice Department) led to press and congressional demands for an investigation by an outside prosecutor. The president ordered anyone in the administration who leaked this information to report it immediately to him. No one came forward. Wilson, already a media darling, looked forward to seeing "Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."
By the end of December 2003, Attorney General Ashcroft had removed himself from the case, placing it in the hands of his newly confirmed deputy James Comey, who in turn assigned the matter to a newly appointed special prosecutor, his friend U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, to whom he granted extraordinary power over the course of the investigation.
Astonishingly, even before Ashcroft recused himself, and even before Comey appointed Fitzgerald, the Justice Department knew that Armitage was the source of the disclosure to Novak. As Corn and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff learned in reporting their new book Hubris, Armitage knew from a description in a follow-up column Novak published on October 1, 2003, that he was Novak's primary source. "Within hours," wrote Isikoff,
William Howard Taft IV, the State Department's legal adviser, notified a senior Justice official that Armitage had information relevant to the case. The next day, a team of FBI agents and Justice prosecutors investigating the leak questioned the deputy secretary. Armitage acknowledged that he had passed along to Novak information contained in a classified State Department memo: that Wilson's wife worked on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues at the CIA. (The memo made no reference to her undercover status.) . . . Powell, Armitage and Taft, the only three officials at the State Department who knew the story, never breathed a word of it publicly and Armitage's role remained secret.
Subsequently, according to Isikoff's account in Newsweek:
Taft, the State Department lawyer, also felt obligated to inform White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. But Powell and his aides feared the White House would then leak that Armitage had been Novak's source--possibly to embarrass State Department officials who had been unenthusiastic about Bush's Iraq policy. So Taft told Gonzales the bare minimum: that the State Department had passed some information about the case to Justice. He didn't mention Armitage. Taft asked if Gonzales wanted to know the details. The president's lawyer, playing the case by the book, said no, and Taft told him nothing more. Armitage's role thus remained that rarest of Washington phenomena: a hot secret that never leaked.
In fact, Armitage had been considered the likely Novak source for months among those of us who had done extensive reporting and research on the case for the online media. For one thing, his was the only name that fit the redacted portions of the prosecution's court filings (redacted, Fitzgerald said, to protect the name and reputation "of an innocent accused"). For another, he had never denied it when asked, and he did seem to many to fit Novak's description of his source from that October 1, 2003, column as someone not in the White House and not a "partisan gunslinger."