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McClellan on Plame

An Inside Report By Robert Novak

Monday, June 02, 2008

In Scott McClellan's purported tell-all memoir of his trials as President George W. Bush's press secretary, he virtually ignores Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's role leaking to me Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA employee. That fits the partisan Democratic version of the Plame affair, in keeping with the overall tenor of "What Happened."

Although the media response dwelled on McClellan's criticism of Bush's road to war, the CIA leak case is the heart of this book. On July 14, 2003, one day before McClellan took the press secretary's job for which many colleagues felt he was unqualified, my column was published asserting that Plame at the CIA suggested her Democratic partisan husband, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson, for a sensitive intelligence mission. That story made McClellan's three years at the briefing room podium a misery, leading to his dismissal and now his bitter retort.

In claiming he was misled about the Plame affair, McClellan mentions Armitage only twice. Armitage being the leaker undermines the Democratic theory, now accepted by McClellan, that Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and political adviser Karl Rove aimed to delegitimize Wilson as a war critic. McClellan's handling of the leak by itself leads former colleagues to suggest he could not have written this book by himself.

On page 173, McClellan first mentions my Plame leak, but he does not identify Armitage as the leaker until page 306 of the 323-page book -- then only in passing. Armitage, anti-war and anti-Cheney, cannot fit the conspiracy theory that McClellan now buys into. When Armitage after two years publicly admitted he was my source, the life went out of Wilson's campaign. In "What Happened," McClellan dwells on Rove's alleged deceptions as if the real leaker were still unknown.

McClellan at the White House podium never knew the facts about the CIA leak, and his memoir reads as though he has tried to maintain his ignorance. He omits Armitage's slipping Mrs. Wilson's identity to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward weeks before he talked to me. He does not mention that Armitage turned himself in to the Justice Department even before Patrick Fitzgerald was named as special prosecutor.

McClellan writes that Rove told him this about his conversation with me after I called him to check Armitage's leak: "He (Novak) said he'd heard that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. I told him I couldn't confirm it because I didn't know." Rove told me last week he never said that to McClellan. Under oath, Rove had testified he told me, "I heard that, too." Under oath, I testified that Rove said, "Oh, you know that, too."

McClellan writes, "I don't know" whether the leaker -- he does not specify Armitage -- committed a felony. He ignores that Fitzgerald's long, expensive investigation found no violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, if only because Plame was not covered. Nevertheless, McClellan calls the leak "wrong and harmful to national security" -- ignoring questions of whether Plame really was engaged in undercover operations and whether her cover long ago had been blown.

A partisan Democratic mantra began earlier in the book. McClellan writes George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign "acquiesced to certain advisers, including Roger Ailes and the late Lee Atwater," who opposed Bush's "civility and decency." (McClellan, then 20 years old, played no part in that campaign.) McClellan contends that thanks to Rove in 2002, "the first cracks appeared in the facade of bipartisan comity."

McClellan's fellow Bush aides do not remember him ever saying anything like that. At senior staff meetings discussing policy, they recall, he was silent. His robotic performances from the White House podium seemed only to disgorge what he had been told, and "What Happened" has the similar feel of someone else's hand.

The book so mimics the Democratic line that Ari Fleischer, McClellan's predecessor as press secretary, asked him last week whether he had a ghostwriter. "No," Fleischer told me that McClellan replied, "but my editor tweaked it." (McClellan did not return my call.)

The bland book proposal McClellan's agent unsuccessfully hawked to publishers early in 2007 is not the volume now in bookstores. How and why McClellan changed is a story so far untold.

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