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Novak: 'No great crime' with leak

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Columnist and "Crossfire" host Robert Novak

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Newspaper columnist and CNN co-host Robert Novak said Monday that while he learned the identity of a CIA operative from administration officials, there was "no great crime" and that he was not the recipient of a planned leak.

Novak, a nationally syndicated columnist who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," said he learned of Valerie Plame's identity as he was preparing a column to be published July 14.

That column looked at the role of Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, in investigating claims about Iraq's nuclear ambitions -- specifically reports that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore in Niger and elsewhere in Africa.

President Bush made the assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address as part of the rationale for going to war, attributing the report to British intelligence. The information was later discredited as being based at least in part on forged documents, and the White House has since backed off the statement.

Wilson, who was acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq just before the Persian Gulf War of 1991, alleges White House officials revealed his wife's identity to Novak in retaliation for his exposing flaws in prewar intelligence on Iraq.

"Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this," Novak said on "Crossfire." "There is no great crime here."

Novak said Monday that he was working on the column when a senior administration official told him the CIA asked Wilson to go to Niger in early 2002 at the suggestion of his wife, whom the source described as "a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction."

Another senior administration official gave him the same information, Novak said, and the CIA confirmed her involvement in her husband's mission.

In his column, Novak attributed the information about Plame's involvement in Wilson's trip to Africa to two unnamed senior administration officials.

"They asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else. According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative and not in charge of undercover operators," Novak said.

The Washington Post quoted a "senior administration official" in a story Sunday as saying that two top White House officials disclosed the identity of Wilson's wife in calls to at least six Washington journalists. Novak was the only recipient of the information who published it, the Post reported.

Wilson at one point suggested that senior Bush adviser Karl Rove could have been behind the leak, which the White House denied. He backed off that assertion somewhat Monday, accusing Rove of at least condoning it.

Wilson described the leak as a punitive move, noting that Novak's column appeared one week after he had written an op-ed article in The New York Times that was critical of the administration's handling of intelligence on Iraq.

"I think it comes out of the White House political office," Wilson said.

Novak said Monday that he will not reveal the names of his sources.

Novak also contacted Wilson for the column and was told, "I will not answer any question about my wife," according to a quotation Novak used in the column.

Wilson disputed that in an interview Monday night on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now."

"Bob Novak called me before he went to print with the report and he said a CIA source had told him that my wife was an operative," Wilson said. "He was trying to get a second source. He couldn't get a second source. Could I confirm that? And I said no."

Wilson said he called Novak after the article appeared citing sources in the Bush administration.

"What was it, CIA or senior administration?" Wilson said he asked Novak. "He said to me, 'I misspoke the first time I spoke to you.' "

The Justice Department, at the CIA's request, is investigating whether anyone in the administration broke the law by leaking Plame's name. The White House has said it will cooperate with the investigation.

Such a leak could constitute a felony. According to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, a federal employee with access to classified information who is convicted of making an unauthorized disclosure about a covert agent faces up to 10 years in prison and as much as $50,000 in fines.

CNN's David Ensor contributed to this report.

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