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Novak’s Still Giving No Facts

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Eric Alterman

At this point in the back and forth over who supplied Bob Novak with all the particulars of Valerie Plame’s identity, there seem to be very few rocks unturned, and hardly a conspiracy theory left unfloated. Yet, there is still something that doesn’t fit about the whole sorry mess, in particular Robert Novak’s enduring spectral presence floating over all possible angles of the story.

A few points appear beyond dispute. The first is that Novak was the first journalist to out Plame as a CIA operative in order to discredit her husband Joseph Wilson’s contention that the administration knowingly fudged evidence in the run up to invading Iraq in 2003. In the process, Novak willfully destroyed the career of a longtime public servant (who, by the way, was working on WMD-related issues) while potentially endangering U.S. national security. While the ultimate damage he caused to national security – and Plame’s life – cannot yet be fully measured, the fact remains that Novak also exposed two professional colleagues to possible jail sentences because he refused to reveal the source in the Bush administration who leaked her identity to him. At the very least, he almost surely cost the agency the expense and man-hours involved in retracing the steps of Plame’s career in an attempt to contain the damage. Operations most likely had to be rolled up; agents relocated; investments squandered and, for all Novak may have known, lives endangered.

From the two journalists faced with jail time, there emerged an unlikely hero in the form of Judith Miller, who perhaps more than any other American journalist carried the administration’s water in the run up to war. Miller, unfortunately for her status as a First Amendment martyr, spent the period leading up to and during the war acting as an informal stenographer for Ahmed Chalabi’s lies about WMD stockpiles in Iraq. Her employer, the allegedly liberal New York Times, offered up a mea culpa of sorts, after it became apparent that the war was waged under a series of false accusations and assertions – all of which the Times willingly splashed across its front pages for months. Yet it failed to mention Miller’s name and she paid no professional price for her false reporting, which the administration used as propaganda for its false scare tactics. Many journalists and commentators – most prominently Arianna Huffington – have raised the possibility that in her zeal to discredit those who opposed the war, Miller may have been Karl Rove, I. Lewis Libby’s or others’ source for Valerie Plame’s identity rather than the other way around. This would not exonerate Rove et al, who would still have broken the law in revealing her identity to reporters, but it would cast Miller’s willingness to enter jail in a far different light. It would also further embarrass her employers at the Times, and undermine the already dispirited journalistic profession.

Throughout special prosecutor Fitzgerald’s investigation of the leak, while Time’s Matt Cooper and Miller fought to stay out of jail (before Cooper’s corporate bosses threw in the towel for him), Novak somehow stayed above the fray, with the protection of his corporate sponsors, including the Washington Post and CNN, despite his unwillingness to clear up many mysteries-including whether he had blown his source or taken the Fifth Amendment to avoid Cooper and Miller’s fate. (Remember, the administration tried to bait at least six reporters with its nefarious story, but only Novak bit.) But Novak’s back on the scene, throwing more gas on the fire and making little sense as he tries to defend what looks by all accounts to be the indefensible.

On Sunday, Novak published a weepy, self-serving piece defending his behavior in the scandal, in response to a Washington Post story in which former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow claimed that he specifically requested Novak not to publish the information he had about Plame. According to the Post, Harlow said that he "warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson’s wife had not authorized [Joseph Wilson’s trip to Africa] and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed. Harlow said that after Novak’s call, he checked Plame’s status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame’s name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified."

Despite these warnings, Novak went ahead and printed Plame’s name. In an exercise in absurdity, he wrote Sunday that Harlow’s contention "is meaningless. Once it was determined that Wilson’s wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as ‘Valerie Plame’ by reading her husband’s entry in ‘Who’s Who in America.’"

The claim that because Wilson’s wife’s name appeared in one of his online biographies and wasn’t a state secret, thus making her essentially already "out," has been a conservative talking point for some time now. But only the simpleminded would believe such drivel. Valerie Wilson wasn’t invisible, and there are plenty of records to show that she existed. (Joe Wilson never denied he had a wife named "Valerie," for goodness’ sake; hence, all that money invested in cover stories for her various occupations.) What the world didn’t know was that she was an undercover operative for the CIA. There’s a yawning gap between proof of her existence and proof of her profession that conservative pundits, and now Novak, are willfully trying to obscure.

As such, Anne Kornblut came close to asking the right question in Tuesday’s New York Times when she wrote, "Why did the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak identify her as Valerie Plame in exposing her link to the c=I.A. in July 2003 when she had been known for years both at the agency and in her personal life by her married name, Valerie Wilson?" A good question, but Kronblut punts the answer. She seems to accept Novak’s absurd contention that Plame was already essentially "out," but the real question isn’t whether Plame’s name was available in public documents, but why Novak used it to expose her cover, such as it was. Novak’s latest excuse is that her maiden name (the one she used in conducting CIA business) is available in Joseph Wilson’s "Who’s Who" entry, and suggests that that’s where he got it. But this contradicts what he told Newsday a week after his original July 2003 column, in which he said that "I didn’t dig [her name] out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

The question remains, as it has for the past 18 months: who is "they"? And why was Novak alone in willing to swallow the bait? And why, after all this time of his refusing to answer these questions-while taking time out to defend himself as he sees fit-is he still trusted by two of America’s most influential news sources to tell the truth to anyone, anywhere at any time?

What liberal media, indeed?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.




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Eric Alterman

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