Robert Novak has a lot of explaining to do.

Robert Novak has a lot of explaining to do.

Robert Novak has a lot of explaining to do.

Media criticism.
Oct. 27 2005 3:57 PM

The Novak Report

When the Plame indictments come down, the columnist will have a lot to explain.

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What will he say when he's unmuzzled?

Robert Novak has only half-kept the vow he made two years ago not to talk about the Valerie Plame case until the Fitzgerald investigation concludes. Seeing as that hour is upon us, I eagerly await his version of events.

But Novak won't have an easy time telling his story. Since publishing his infamous July 14, 2003, columnthat outed the covert CIA officer, Novak has made a mash of it every time he's discussed the subject. Tracking his many inconsistent statements about how and why administration sources leaked Valerie Plame's name to him and whether he would surrender the names of confidential sources have been the liberal watchdogs at Media Matters for Americaand others. To straighten the record, Novak will need an Ingersoll-Rand DD-70tandem asphalt roller.

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Rereading the original Novak outing column, I can't fathom why so many people—then and now—read the Novak piece as part of a conspiracy to "punish" Plame's whistle-blowing husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Compared with the usual Novak formula, partisan slashing and stiletto jabs, the column reads almost like a straight and substantive news story. It reports how the CIA came to send Wilson to Niger to investigate allegations about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium. It also measures the political fallout from Wilson's July 6, 2003, op-ed in the New York Times. In that op-ed, Wilson famously wrote of his Niger trip, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

But because the paragraph in which Novak outs Plame arrives with little in the way of context, it's provided readers with ample reason to interpret. Novak writes:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

Some interpret the paragraph as Novak's way of denigrating Wilson: The assignment was an act of nepotism. Others take a harder line, believing that Novak was helping the administration blow Plame's cover as direct retaliation, an act that maimed their political foe Wilson by putting his wife in personal danger and ending her career. Still others view the outing as the administration's warning for future whistle-blowers: Cross us and we'll come gunning for you and your family. Ambassador Wilson subscribes to most of the above.

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But these interpreters don't know bob about Novak. When he attacks people, he does it with a skywriter, not an airbrush. So, what was Novak's intention? What motivated him to reveal her identity? Eight days after the column appeared, Novak made the administration officials' disclosure sound lackadaisical, telling Newsday(July 22) that his sources had approached him with the information. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," Novak said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

As Media Matters points out, Novak started to change his story a couple of days after the Department of Justice announced an official investigation of the leak. In his Oct. 1, 2003, column, Novak assures readers that his "role and role of the Bush White House have been distorted and need explanation" and that he "did not receive a planned leak," i.e., the administration hadn't planted the story with him for political gain. Novak writes that the information came to him during "a long conversation with a senior administration official." Novak had asked the official why Wilson had been sent to Niger, and the official said Wilson's CIA wife had suggested him. "It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger," Novak writes, and the information was confirmed by a second administration source who said to Novak, "Oh, you know about it."

So, which is it? Was the Plame information "given" to him by someone who "thought it was significant" and did not require him to "dig it out," as he told Newsday in July? Or did he learn about her during a long conversation in which he had taken the initiative to inquire about why the CIA sent Wilson to Niger, as he writes in his October column?

When Tim Russert asked Novak about the inconsistencies on the Oct. 5, 2003, edition of Meet the Press, Novak waved his hands and said there were none.

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Another contradiction: As Media Matters notes, Novak expressed absolutely no qualms about Wilson's qualifications for the Niger job in his July 14 column. In fact, he devotes a whole paragraph to showcasing Wilson's impressive résumé. But in his Oct. 1 column, Novak retrofits his July mind-set, describing himself as puzzled by the Wilson assignment as he read the ambassador's Times op-ed. Novak writes:

I was curious why a high-ranking official in President Bill Clinton's National Security Council (NSC) was given this assignment. Wilson had become a vocal opponent of President Bush's policies in Iraq after contributing to Al Gore in the last election cycle and John Kerry in this one.

Novak engaged in similar retrofitting of his July mind-set in October appearances on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reportsand the aforementioned Meet the Press.

So, again, which way was it? If Novak really believed that the ambassador was a partisan hack when he wrote the July column, why didn't he write it that way?

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Another thing Novak's ultimate Plame column will have to wrestle with is why he has repeatedly cited the advice of his attorneys as the reason he won't answer reporters' questions about the investigation, even questions about whether he's testified before the grand jury. (Another nod is due here to Media Matters.)

"My lawyer has asked me not to talk about the investigation at all," he told Meet the Press on Oct. 5, 2003.

When Amy Sullivan interviewed him for a profile in the December 2004 Washington Monthly, Novak forbade discussion of the Plame business. Novak's assistant told Sullivan that if she brought the subject up, "the interview will be immediately terminated."

Interviewed on CNN's Inside Politics (June 29, 2005), Novak said, "As somebody who likes to write, I'd like to say a lot about the case, but because of my attorney's advice I can't. But I will."

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"Though frustrated, I have followed the advice of my attorneys and written almost nothing about the CIA leak over two years because of a criminal investigation by a federal special prosecutor," Novak wrote in his Aug. 1, 2005, column.

Novak's endless citation of his lawyer's advice poses the question, What is his legal liability? He did nothing criminal in publishing Plame's identity, so he's not protecting himself by keeping silent. So, who is his silence protecting?

Could it be that he's been using his "attorney's advice" to hide the fact that he testified before the grand jury? Testimony there is secret—unless, of course, the person who testified shares the information with the public. Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller, who were subpoenaed by the grand jury, finally gave testimony after receiving waivers from their sources. They also wrote about their testimony for their publications because the waivers put the information on the record.

Has Novak kept mum about the case so he won't have to explain how or why he gave up his confidential sources? Or what sort of waiver he received? In the past he's made sweeping statements about the importance of keeping confidential sources confidential. On Oct. 16, 2003, while visiting a college in Florida, Novak explainedwhy he would never give up his confidential sources.

"If I did, I would be finished in journalism," the Boca Raton News quoted him. "I talk to people off the record all the time. It's the way America gets a lot of its information."

Also to be resolved in Novak's forthcoming piece is his insistence in his Oct. 1, 2003, column and in television appearances that his source for the Plame information was not a "partisan gunslinger." As I write this, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby are regarded as the most likely sources of the leak. Campaign manager Rove by anybody's measure is a partisan gunslinger. If I were feeling charitable to Novak, I would be willing to call Libby (State Department, Department of Defense, "former Hill staffer") just a gunslinger whose only partisanship is about protecting the administration. But I'm not feeling charitable.

When Novak paints his masterpiece about the Plame case, I hope he tells his readers more about his "CIA source." When he appeared on Meet the Press in October 2003, he volunteered to Russert that he had "one source at the CIA who says [Plame] was not a covert operative." The chapter about Novak in Wilson's book The Politics of Truth is chockablock with references to Novak's alleged CIA source.

Wilson writes that six days before Novak's Plame column appeared, an unnamed friend of his approached Novak on a Washington, D.C., street near George Washington University and accompanied the columnist for a couple blocks. Novak didn't know that the friend knew Wilson as the two engaged in conversation about the Niger affair. The friend asked Novak what he thought of Wilson.

Novak responded, "Wilson's an asshole. The CIA sent him. His wife, Valerie, works for the CIA. She's a weapons of mass destruction specialist. She sent him," and then the two parted.

The friend immediately called Wilson, and Wilson got in touch with Novak two days later. Novak apologized to Wilson for talking to a stranger about his wife but also repeated his claim that a CIA source had told him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. When Novak asked Wilson to confirm it, Wilson told him he didn't answer questions about his wife.

Wilson called Novak after the column appeared and, among other things, asked him why he'd cited "two administration officials" and not his CIA source when he unmasked Plame. Novak said, "I misspoke the first time we talked."

So, did Novak have a CIA source about Plame, as he stated on Meet the Press in October 2003 and to the stranger he talked to on the street in July 2003 and to Wilson in their first conversation in July? Or did he not, as he said to Wilson in July after the column appeared?

One last peculiarity for Novak to explain: He opposed the Iraq war, as did Wilson. One would think that Novak would sympathize with the ambassador on matters of foreign policy rather than describe him as an "asshole" to a stranger even before the outing column appeared in print.

******

I've not included the running dispute between Novak and former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow over whether Harlow sufficiently waved Novak away from naming Plame, because it would require another 2,000 words. To review the dispute yourself, see this Aug. 1, 2005, column in which Novak responds to what Harlow told the Washington Post. Rest assured  no covert CIA officers were exposed in the writing of this column. Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)