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Isikoff and Corn’s “Hubris” Misses the Plane on the 1x2x6 Leaks


Michael Isikoff and David Corn made a big splash in promoting their new book, Hubris, by confirming speculation about  Richard Armitage talking to Bob Novak during the week in July 2003 that Valerie Plame Wilson was outed as a CIA employee, and by revealing Ms. Wilson’s key role in pre-war Iraq intelligence (a possible reason for the Bushites to seek revenge against her).  

But what you may not know is that Isikoff and Corn also pretend claim to have solved the mystery behind the September 2003 story in the Washington Post that seemed to break the leak scandal wide open with this sentence:

… a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife.

Due to the combination of one senior administration official (the Post‘s source), two White House officials (the leakers), and six or more reporters, this version of events has become known as the "1x2x6 leak."  On page 320 of Hubris, just after implying that "the CIA’s press-savvy spinners" planted the claim with the WaPo’s Mike Allen and Dana Priest, Isikoff and Corn write:

The Post story on the CIA leak was consequential. . . . But this pivotal article (written mostly by Allen, not Priest) was partially off the mark–due to a slight wording change in a crucial sentence.

In the paper’s early edition, the words "before Novak’s column ran" were not in the sentence noting that "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists." An editor on the Post national desk inserted that phrase to sharpen the copy and clarify what the editor took to be Allen’s understanding of events. But the addition of those four words — "before Novak’s column ran" — made a huge difference. . . . it would have been no crime to talk to a journalist about what had already been published in a newspaper column. But if Bush aides had placed the calls before the Novak column, they would have been divulging classified information . . .

This behind-the-scenes nugget sounds convincing, and it’s consistent with a story Isikoff wrote for Newsweek on October 8, 2003, claiming that the calls in the 1x2x6 story had been made after Novak’s column was printed.

But there’s just one catch.  This anonymous national desk editor must have been awfully persistent, since the same description of the 1x2x6 leak occurring before Novak’s July 14, 2003 column showed up in follow-up Post articles on October 1 and October 12 of that year, as well as a retrospective on the Plame leak in July 2005. Since Mike Allen co-wrote each of these stories, either the phrase "before Novak’s column ran" really was accurate, or the Post’s desk editor was stalking his prose to insert the error over and over.

Even worse, though, is this claim by Isikoff and Corn in a footnote:

Within the Post, there was concern about the first article and discussions about whether any correction was warranted, according to Post sources. But no action was taken. The editors and reporters involved, one Post correspondent subsequently said, "had no real desire to let people know we fucked this up." A year later, the Post ran a piece by reporter Susan Schmidt noting that government investigators had been trying to confirm the allegation in Allen’s story but had failed to do so.

Both of the statements in bold are incorrect.  As I wrote at the time and in greater depth three months ago, the October 12 Post story I cited above was written in a direct (if unacknowledged) response to Isikoff’s claim that their timeline was wrong.  (Undoubtedly, Spikey was reading the WaPo at the time; did he just forget the article, or choose to drop it down the memory hole?)  And the Susan Schmidt story from November 2004 to which the footnote refers is not based on any admission from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald or his team, but rather speculation from attorneys for reporters who had been questioned by Fitz. 

Returning to page 320 of Hubris, Isikoff and Corn confirm the confusion in their thinking by trying to piece together an alternative "2×3" hypothesis: 

The truth was somewhere in the middle. . . . two White House officials, Rove and Libby, had spoken to at least three reporters — Novak, Judy Miller, and Matt Cooper — about Valerie Wilson before the Novak column came out. The reporters, though, had contacted them, not the other way around. . . . The White House’s anti-Wilson campaign had been less organized than depicted by the explosive Post story, and much (but not all) of it had occurred after the Novak column was published. Mike Allen’s source had supplied him a slice of the story–with some significant details wrong.

Um… but you forgot somebody, guys.  Only back on page 277, in passing, does Hubris mention that on July 12, 2003 — two days before Novak’s column ran — Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was told about Joe Wilson’s wife working for the CIA by a senior administration official who "veered off the precise matter we were discussing."  This official wasn’t Karl Rove or Scooter Libby, but ace investigative journalist Murray Waas reported in April of last year that the source had come clean, having "told a federal grand jury that he made the claim to the Post reporter [Pincus] and others." 

Others?  How many others?  As many as six or more, perhaps?  Let’s take another look back at that Susan Schmidt article in the WaPo from November 2004:

Prosecutors have questioned numerous witnesses, some of them repeatedly, to learn whether two senior White House aides actively peddled Plame’s identity to more than half a dozen reporters before Novak revealed it in print — an allegation made by an anonymous administration official in a Sept. 28, 2003, Washington Post article.

. . .  In questioning reporters for The Washington Post, NBC and Time, prosecutors have shown a particular interest in the events of July 12, reporters and their attorneys have said.

If Isikoff and Corn’s reconstruction is correct, there’s no reason for this "particular interest" — aside from the tooth fairy (apparently) talking to Walter Pincus, the orgy of leaking by Rove, Libby, and Armitage was already complete by July 12, so there was nothing left for the miscreants to do but lie back and smoke a cigarette.  

But Fitzgerald appears to suspect otherwise.  And if Pincus was leaked to without asking, it would be reasonable to believe the same official told other reporters the same thing that day ("It was unsolicited," the anonymous "1" SAO had told the Post about the 1x2x6 leaks on October 12).

On July 12, 2003, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was flying back from Africa on Air Force One with Dubya, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and other officials.  I’ve long had a theory that the 1x2x6 calls were made from Air Force One (apparently on orders from Libby or Dick Cheney), with some loose ends and speculation about reporters who received the calls addressed here.  This seems to be the scenario that Fitzgerald has been looking into; perhaps Isikoff and Corn should have checked it out as well.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (