Bob Novak's imaginary sourcing.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 19 2006 6:59 PM

Armitage Was Never "Off the Record"

Plamegate's greatest irony.

(Continued from Page 1)

Tell it to Bob Novak! In his column revealing that Wilson was married to a CIA operative, Novak did not state this information omnisciently. Instead, he wrote that it came from "two senior administration officials," one of whom, we now know, was Armitage. Novak's definition of "deep background" apparently allows that. The State Department's definition doesn't.

My point is not to excoriate Novak, or the State Department, for misunderstanding what "deep background" means. It is to demonstrate that "deep background" possesses no fixed, agreed-upon meaning. Therefore, a mutual agreement that something is on "deep background" starts on shaky ground to begin with. When that agreement is "tacit," which is to say that it's assumed in silence, it has no meaning at all. There is no way for Novak to know that Armitage expects confidentiality; there isn't even a way for Novak to know what Armitage's particular idea of "confidentiality" might entail.

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Why would Novak persuade himself that he had some sort of body-language "tacit" agreement not to reveal Armitage's identity? Because the likely reality is less flattering. In his Sept. 14 column, Novak explains that before their encounter, Novak had never met Armitage. Novak had tried to arrange an interview, "but he rebuffed me—summarily and with disdain, I thought." Then, suddenly—and apparently (Novak doesn't spell this out) through the intercession of their mutual acquaintance Ken Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Reagan—Novak got ushered into Armitage's office. What went through Novak's mind as Armitage mouthed off about Plame? First, of course: "Hot story." But second: "Armitage will get into trouble if I quote him by name. If I get Armitage into trouble, he won't talk to me anymore, and maybe other people in Washington won't talk to me either. And anyway, what's important is this news about Wilson's wife. So, I'll protect Armitage in writing this story."

Granting immunity to sources who might be useful in the future is a routine form of petty corruption in Washington, one that I've participated in myself on occasion. Simply as a practical matter, it can be necessary to keep information flowing. But one thing it definitely can't be called is an agreement. To be sure, the source may assume (recklessly) that he is so important that the reporter he's dishing to wouldn't dare quote him by name. And the journalist may assume the same thing back. But that isn't an agreement. It's two separate calculations, one based on egotism and the other based on perceived self-interest. In no way can it be construed as the sort of contract that a court of law might recognize and protect in the interests of the First Amendment.

Novak's loosey-goosey notion that his conversation with Armitage was "tacitly" confidential gets him off one hook. Novak came in for a lot of "rat fink"-type criticism from fellow journalists, first when he was suspected of having given his source up to the special prosecutor, and later when he confirmed that he had done so. But I don't see how any responsible lawyer could tell Novak he had a snowball's chance in hell of avoiding jail time if Novak couldn't state truthfully that he was enforcing an explicit promise. And I don't see how Novak could justify to himself the idea of going to jail to protect a source to whom he had promised … nothing.

But Novak's "tacit" confidentiality agreement puts him on a different hook: How can he justify not having revealed his source to his readers? One could forgive Novak for leaving Armitage's name out of his initial column, because Novak was genuinely (if naively) surprised when Plame's unmasking by a government official was deemed not just titillating, but scandalous. But it quickly became clear, even to Novak, that the identity of his initial source was a matter of urgent interest to the public. It was news. And Novak sat on it, voluntarily.

Novak himself doesn't see it that way. Instead of blaming himself, he blames Armitage for keeping mum:

Armitage's silence the next 2-1/2 years caused intense pain for his colleagues in government and enabled partisan Democrats in Congress to falsely accuse Rove of being my primary source. … Armitage's tardy self-disclosure is tainted because it is deceptive.

True enough. But one can say precisely the same thing about Novak.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.