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.
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.
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.