updated 7/12/2006 11:04:20 AM ET 2006-07-12T15:04:20

Guests: Jim VandeHei

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Bob Novak, the nationally syndicated columnist who first revealed the role of CIA operative Valerie Wilson has identified now two of what he says were his three sources.  They are Bush top political aide Karl Rove and CIA official Bill Harlow. 

But who was the person that Novak calls his primary source?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL.

Breaking news tonight on the CIA leak case, as Bob Novak, the columnist who was the first to reveal the identify of Valerie Wilson, is finally breaking his silence.  As HARDBALL first reported on our 5:00 hour, Novak notes one of his sources was Bush top adviser Karl Rove and says his confirming source for his column with Mrs. Wilson‘s identity was CIA public information officer Bill Harlow.  Mr. Harlow has denied this altogether. 

Novak does not reveal the name of his primary source, and the source has not come forward.  Thus far, no one has confirmed Novak‘s recitation of the events. 

“Washington Post” reporter Jim VandeHei and HARDBALL‘s David Shuster have covered this story from the beginning. 

Jim VandeHei, the importance of this article tonight by Bob Novak? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I think it ends another chapter in the saga.  We never fully knew all the details of Novak‘s conversations.  I think we did know that Rove was one of the sources, always assumed that Harlow had been engaged in the process, because Bob Novak had called him to tell him the story that he was writing.

And then that third source who we‘d like to know, everyone in the case seems to think that it‘s Dick Armitage, a former State Department official.  It be good to know that third official, because it might give you a better portrait of whether this was a concerted effort to try to damage a critic of the White House or whether it was just sort of an incidental conversation or someone who had information who happened to give it to Novak. 

MATTHEWS:  But if it is, of course—we have to speculate here a bit

if it was Armitage who is the third source, who was not identified tonight in the article by Bob Novak—if he was the primary source who initially gave that information to Bob Novak, what would be his motive?  Because Armitage was never known as a hawk in this war, never known as a particularly zealous defender of the policy. 

VANDEHEI:  But he is known as somewhat of a gossiper with people in Washington, so it wouldn‘t be unfathomable that he would be talking about this or other issues with Novak.  And I also think that that would undercut this whole theory that this was this concerted effort to get out and to hurt a critic of the White House, because he‘s not seen as someone as part of the White House inner circle. 

Remember, he was at the State Department under Colin Powell, and they were seen as sort of the tension counterpoint at the White House. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

VANDEHEI:  They didn‘t like these guys at all.

MATTHEWS:  They were skeptics of these so-called neo-cons...

VANDEHEI:  Right, skeptics of Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  ... and these war hawks.  Let‘s take a look at the column...

VANDEHEI:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  ... and have everybody now see what Bob Novak reported tonight in “Human Events” magazine.  He posted the following:  “I have revealed Karl Rove‘s name, because his attorney has divulged the substance of our conversation, though in a form different from my recollection.  I have revealed Bill Harlow‘s name, because he has publicly disclosed his version of our conversation, which also differs from my recollection.  My primary source has not come forward to identify himself.”

David Shuster, you‘ve been on this from the beginning.  Significance? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it‘s significant, because Novak again is saying that this was inadvertent, that, if it was Armitage, as lawyers in the case believe and as the documents suggest, that if Richard Armitage was the primary source—and, again, Novak‘s not revealing that tonight—but he is saying that this was not a political gunslinger, something that he said in an original column three years ago.

And he‘s also saying, after the federal investigation was announced, he, the primary source, told me through a third party that the disclosure was inadvertent.  So that would fit with the idea that Armitage, if that was the primary source, didn‘t intend for this information to get out. 

But what Novak then does is that he then talks to Karl Rove, and he has a conversation with Bill Harlow. 

But I want to draw your attention, Chris, to two things that come out of this column tonight from Novak, and that is we now know for the first time from Novak himself that his recollection of his conversation with Karl Rove and his recollection of his conversation with Bill Harlow were different from what Harlow and Rove say. 

And the reason that‘s important, specifically for Bill Harlow, is because there are all sorts of restrictions about what a CIA person and public affairs officer can say. 

MATTHEWS:  Sure.

SHUSTER:  It also raises question about the journalistic integrity of Bob Novak, but that‘s an issue that, of course...

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s focus on how the information is given out. 

Jim, you‘re here, and David‘s here, and I‘m here, and we all know that there are ways of getting a confirmation from a source, especially on this deep background situation.  They can wave you off.  You can say, “Say something in the next 30 seconds or I‘ll believe it‘s true.” 

There‘s all kinds of ways that sources could say or give information to someone who‘s reporting a story or writing a column without actually putting their fingerprints on it, Jim, right? 

VANDEHEI:  Absolutely.  And it sounds like you have a couple of different cases here.  When he‘s dealing with Karl Rove, who he had called and was talking to about the issue, there seems to be some discrepancy between what Rove‘s recollection is, where he said, “Oh, yes, I heard that, too,” versus what now we‘re hearing from Novak, who‘s saying, “Oh, you have heard that, too.” 

Which, I mean, it‘s a different of tone, but it‘s also—as a reporter, you sit back and you think, “OK, well, that is information that he‘s clearly heard and that may be could be getting shopped around.” 

The Harlow incident, I think, is a little bit different, because once you‘re—I think what happened here is, once he has the story, then he goes to the CIA.  Now, at that point, if Harlow says, “Wait a second.  I don‘t know if we should be running that.  You know, that could really hurt one of our operatives or that could hurt, you know, some ongoing things that we have going over here at the CIA,” well, you could use that, too, as a confirmation, if that‘s what‘s happening.  And I‘m sure, you know, as a journalist, that could have happened here. 

MATTHEWS:  Jim, that has the—well, who knows what happened here?  We‘ll know more in the next couple of days, perhaps.  But if Harlow simply did his job of protecting the agency, he could have inadvertently—to use that word again—betrayed the fact by saying, “You know, you can‘t run that.  That‘s going to hurt our operations.” 

VANDEHEI:  And this stuff happens all the time.  And when I‘m talking to sources, and I know that there‘s information they don‘t want to turn out -- and you probably do the same thing—you throw things out.  “Yes, you know, I‘ve heard this.”  And if they bite on it, then that gives you, you know, a confirmation and gives you more certainty that there‘s something go on here, you better some more reporting. 

The question is, you know:  Who told Novak first?  And was it—you know, the thing I really want to know is:  Was it somebody in the White House who might have been part of an operation that was out to smear a critic of the war?  And that‘s where the Armitage thing would be really interesting, because I think it would undercut that argument, which has been a core argument of the critics of the White House from the beginning. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I don‘t want to narrow this too much to just this particular case, because we know, reading all the records—David, check me on this—that Karl Rove talked about the identify of Valerie Plame with Novak.  We know that because of Karl Rove—because of Novak‘s statement tonight, his article tonight.

He also know he talked to Matt Cooper of “Time” magazine about this woman‘s identity and her role in her husband‘s trip to check out that possible transaction involving a yellowcake in Niger.  We know that Scooter Libby, who‘s under trial now for obstruction and perjury, we know that he talked to Judy Miller.  We know that he talked to Matt Cooper. 

So there‘s a lot of people out here pushing this story, in addition to possibly Richard Armitage. 

SHUSTER:  Right.  And one of the other mysteries that we don‘t know, Chris, is we don‘t get much information at all about, what was the substance of the conversation between Karl Rove and Bob Novak?

And the reason that is significant is because the confirming conversation that Novak says he had with Bill Harlow, Harlow has told friends this happened July 10th.  Well, that was in the middle of this crucial week, when, according to prosecutors in the Libby case, there was a concerted effort to try and undercut Joe Wilson and that it involved the use of information.

Now, nobody has been charged with illegally distributing classified information, but Scooter Libby has been charged with lying about events, including events that week.  And that‘s why the conversation...

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s all a question here, Jim and David, of sequencing and how people talked, if they did—and we think we know the people right now -- who talked to Bob Novak, as he prepared his column.  Bill Harlow has told people that, when Novak called the CIA and talked to him, he talked about administration sources who‘ve already revealed Valerie Plame‘s identity.  So he came in two sources by then.  So he was number three on deck here. 

And so let me get back to you, Jim.  If you put all the pieces of this together, it does suggest Armitage, because of something that the former executive editor of the “Washington Post” said, right? 

VANDEHEI:  Right.  And there‘s been a lot of theories about this, but most of the lawyers in the case have thought it‘s Armitage from the beginning. 

Let me throw out something else that I think that‘s interesting now that we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  You could see the prosecutor looking early on, having all that information he had compiled on Libby, and it really looking like there is this concerted effort. 

And, remember, we didn‘t learn about Rove until later in the case.  And he didn‘t learn about Rove until later in the case.  So by the time he learns about Rove and he sees, “Wow, could it just be an incidental conversation with Novak and this passing reference to ‘Time‘ magazine‘s Matthew Cooper?”  That probably didn‘t pass the smell test at that point.  But, looking back, I wonder if that isn‘t why they thought there was much more going on here. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it‘s still cloudy whether there really was a conspiracy or not.  Thank you very much, Jim VandeHei and David Shuster. 

Up next, is the Bush economy a boom or a bust?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

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