Bush officials cleared as Powell's former deputy admits unmasking CIA agent

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Who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, glamorous not-so-secret CIA agent and Vanity Fair cover girl? For three years, the mystery obsessed Washington, the liberal media and Bush-haters around the world.

The tale was always convoluted, with a plot line so dense newspaper articles had to be read three times to be understood. But for aficionados, the implication was plain. The leakers were to be found in a war-mongering and vindictive White House, with "Bush's brain" Karl Rove and Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby, suspects No 1 and 2.

These dastardly officials, it was assumed, had revealed Ms Plame's identity to take revenge on her husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for his claims that the administration had twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Er, well, not exactly. It now transpires that the leaker was not Mr Rove, Mr Libby, or any other scheming neocon. The culprit, by his own admission, was Richard Armitage, the bullnecked, profane and much-liked deputy to the former Secretary of State, Colin Powell.

This week Mr Armitage confessed his "terrible error" to various selected journalists. Apparently he blurted out Ms Plame's real profession in a gossipy aside to reporters back in mid-2003. "I value my ability to keep state secrets," he told The New York Times yesterday. "This was bad and I felt really badly about this." But no one is hauling him over the coals. Nowhere will you find the venom so liberally dispensed towards Messrs Libby and Rove. And why? Simply because Mr Armitage, who left the administration along with Mr Powell at the end of 2004, was one of the "good guys" for the liberal media, a voice of common sense, on record for his disdain for the "crazies" at the Pentagon and in the Vice-President's office.

For much of 2004 and 2005, the CIA leak saga was one of the hottest stories in town, as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald pursued his investigation. Week after week, it was front-page news, fodder for countless angry op-ed pieces and fulminating editorials - some of them in this paper, some by this writer.

Now however all is explained, but you have to look pretty hard to find the explanation. Mr Armitage's mea culpa is buried on page 22 of The New York Times, and on an inside page of yesterday's Washington Post.

The Plame affair joins a long list of Washington pseudo-scandals - most recently the Whitewater affair, revolving around a small, loss-making land deal by Bill and Hillary Clinton in early 1980s, that bedevilled the former president's entire first term.

But specific questions cry out for answer. Mr Armitage, it transpires, told Mr Fitzgerald back in late 2003 that he might have been the unwitting leaker. He appeared before the grand jury three times, most recently in December 2005.

Unusually, the former deputy secretary of state never hired a lawyer: "I deserved whatever was coming to me, I didn't need an attorney to tell the truth."

So why did he keep quiet so long? Because the prosecutor told him to, Mr Armitage now says. But why did Mr Fitzgerald continue his investigation so long and so vigorously, when he seems to have known the answer, almost from the outset. Instead he chased journalists for their notes, threatening them with contempt if they did not comply. At one point last year the Plame affair turned into a test case of First Amendment rights and the freedom of the press, as Judith Miller, a former New York Times reporter, spent three months in an Alexandria jail for refusing to co-operate.

Was all this really necessary? And what of Mr Libby? Indicted for perjury before a grand jury and obstruction of justice, he theoretically faces trial early next year. Like many victims of Washington imbroglios, he is burdened with a tainted reputation and colossal legal bills. Precisely what he obstructed however is more mysterious than ever.

Spies and leaks

* July 2003 Valerie Plame's diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, publishes article criticising President Bush's use of Iraq intelligence. A week later, journalist Robert Novak writes column naming Ms Plame as a CIA operative.

* September 2003 Justice Department investigates. * July 2006 Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, jailed for not revealing source.

* September 2005 Miller is released after receiving waiver of confidentiality from her source, Lewis Libby.

* October 2005 Karl Rove escapes indictment. Libby is indicted and resigns.