Washington In June 2003, when Washington Post editor Bob Woodward sat down with a top source at the U.S. State Department, he had a question.
The capital was buzzing about a public attack by a former U.S. diplomat on one of the claims President Bush had used to justify the Iraq war. And the diplomat was citing a fact-finding trip he had made to Africa on orders from CIA officials to justify his criticism.
"Why would they send him?" Woodward asked, referring to the ex-envoy, Joseph Wilson, who had been dispatched to the African nation of Niger to assess the nuclear intentions of Saddam Hussein.
"Because his wife's a (expletive) analyst at the agency," Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, replied.
Woodward - and his tape-recorded, expletive-laden exchange with Armitage - became a focus Monday at the trial of a top White House aide accused of leaking sensitive information about a CIA agent and then lying about it.
Woodward and a parade of other prominent Washington journalists were called to testify about how they had learned about the intelligence agent, Valerie Plame, who was married to Wilson. All agreed they had been told about Plame and her CIA role by a variety of other government officials - not by the defendant, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
The testimony came as Libby's lawyers launched a defense aimed at portraying their client as a scapegoat in a three-year federal probe into how the identity of Plame, an agency analyst specializing in arms proliferation, became public.
Whatever its value to the defense may prove to be, the journalists' testimony made one thing clear: At a time when the administration's rationale for going to war was coming under increasing attack, officials in the White House and beyond were doing a lot of talking to reporters about CIA operative Plame. And that talking was going on even though it can be against the law to divulge the identity of covert intelligence agents.
In addition to Woodward, syndicated newspaper columnist Robert Novak - whose disclosure of Plame's name and CIA connection in a July 14, 2003, piece kicked off the original leak furor - said he had heard it from White House political guru Karl Rove, as well as from Armitage.
Walter Pincus of the Washington Post said he had heard it from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
The government has not alleged that Libby was the first person to divulge the identity of Plame or even the first to leak information for stories that were published about her. Rather, as in many other Washington scandals, he is charged with orchestrating a cover-up to hide his involvement.
Rove, Fleischer and Armitage have acknowledged speaking to reporters about Wilson's wife. But Libby was the only person charged with a crime.
Both Novak and Pincus said they had spoken with Libby in the summer of 2003 about the then-growing controversy surrounding Wilson and his claims that the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence in Iraq.
But both men said Libby did not provide them information about Plame. Their comments were echoed by three other prominent Washington journalists who occupied the witness box Monday: David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times; Evan Thomas, editor at large of Newsweek magazine; and Glenn Kessler, another Post reporter.
Woodward, famous for helping break open the Watergate scandal, has been a provocative figure in the story about Plame and Wilson. While he was apparently the first person to learn of the identity of Plame, he did not disclose the fact until after Libby was indicted in October 2005.
The revelation embarrassed special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who had declared Libby the first government official to tell a reporter about Plame.