Novak still claims he never blew an agent's cover.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 23 2007 4:20 PM

Novak's Denial

You blew a CIA employee's cover, Bob. Live with it.

Robert Novak. Click image to expand.
Columnist Robert Novak 

Robert Novak remains bizarrely in denial about whether he unmasked a covert employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. At a March 16 congressional hearing, Valerie Plame Wilson testified, under oath, "I served the United States loyally and to the best of my ability as a covert operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. … In the run-up to the war with Iraq, I worked in the counterproliferation division of the CIA, still as a covert officer whose affiliation with the CIA was classified."

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., asked Plame whether she had been covert until July 14, 2003, when Novak published his column identifying her as a CIA employee. She answered in the affirmative. If Novak didn't want to take Plame's word for it, there was always Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House committee Plame was testifying before. In his opening statement, he said,

Ms. Wilson was a covert employee of the CIA. We cannot discuss all of the details of her CIA employment in open session. I have met with—personally with General [Michael] Hayden, the head of the CIA, to discuss what I can and cannot say about Ms. Wilson's service. And I want to thank him for his cooperation and help in guiding us along these lines. … During her employment at the CIA, Ms. Wilson was undercover. Her employment status with the CIA was classified information, prohibited from disclosure under Executive Order 12958. At the time of the publication of Robert Novak's column on July 14, 2003, Ms. Wilson's CIA employment status was covert. This was classified information.

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Executive Order 12958 says, "If there is significant doubt about the need to classify information, it shall not be classified." To be classified, information must, at a minimum, be something whose disclosure "reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security that the original classification authority is able to identify or describe."

None of this strikes me as particularly ambiguous. Yet Novak, in his March 22 column, refuses to believe it. To be sure, he concedes, Waxman "was correctly quoting Hayden." But Hayden's willingness to state that Plame was covert does not, in Novak's view, decide the matter. It merely confirms "Republican suspicions that Hayden is too close to Democrats."

Plame can't have been covert, Novak suggests, because she was "outed years ago by a Soviet agent." That's far from clear. According to an October 2003 column by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, the CIA "suspected" Plame was one of the agents whose identity was exposed by American double agent Aldrich Ames, and brought her home after Ames was arrested in 1994. But at the hearing, Plame testified that "[i]n the run-up to the war with Iraq," she "traveled to foreign countries on secret missions." Obviously, the CIA either concluded that Ames hadn't compromised Plame or that the damage was minimal.

A variation on this story by Bill Gertz of the Washington Times was published in July 2004. According to Gertz, Plame's identity "was first disclosed to Russia in the mid-1990s by a Moscow spy," whom Gertz does not name, and later, inadvertently, in a document sent to the Swiss embassy in Havana and intercepted by the Cuban government. If the first disclosure occurred in the mid-1990s, as Gertz claims, then it couldn't have come, as Novak writes, from a "Soviet agent," because the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. Again, whatever damage these disclosures may have caused do not appear to have prevented Plame from traveling abroad "on secret missions" a few years later.

Novak also suggests that Plame couldn't have been covert because before he published his 2003 column naming Plame, CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told him Plame "never would be given another foreign assignment." It isn't clear why Harlow might have said that, but Harlow told the Washington Postthat he told Novak not to identify Plame, and that's essentially how Novak remembers the conversation. (Novak told Fox News that Harlow "asked me not to write it," but not as firmly as Harlow says he did.) Both men agree that Harlow failed to tell Novak that Plame was undercover, and that was obviously a dumb mistake on Harlow's part. Apparently Harlow was going by the book: Plame's undercover status, he told the Post, was itself classified information. (Would that book be Catch-22?)

Novak's imagined ace in the hole is that Hayden, in a conference call after Plame's testimony with Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., ranking member of the House intelligence committee, "would not answer whether Plame was covert under the terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act." Victoria Toensing, a partisan Republican who helped draft the law when she was chief counsel to the Senate intelligence committee, told Waxman's committee, "I have no reason whatsoever to believe that Ms. Plame was covert under the statute." But let's suppose Plame is not covered by the statute. So what? Nobody is being prosecuted under that statute. (Libby got nailed for perjury.) Clearly the government has more than one way to define what covert means, including Executive Order 12958, and under Executive Order 12958 and possibly under other laws and regulations, Plame was covert.

Novak may choose to regret or not regret that he blew the cover of an undercover CIA employee; he would hardly be the first journalist to do so. But for Novak to continue pretending he did no such thing is just weird. In an earlier column, I explained why Novak's interview with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in which Armitage first revealed to Novak that Plame worked for the CIA—and set the Plamegate wheels in motion, apparently inadvertently—couldn't possibly have occurred on "deep background," as Novak maintains. Between his imaginary obligation not to disclose Armitage's name and his refusal to recognize the CIA's real obligation not to disclose Plame's, Novak is acting awfully confused these days about what's a secret and what's not.

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

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