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What About Bob?

Let’s not forget that it was Robert Novak who played into the White House’s hand by revealing Valerie Plame’s identity in the first place.

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  • Eric Alterman
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There is plenty to be said about the trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and the entire tawdry saga leading up to it. And we will surely be hearing more about it in the coming weeks than most of us can synthesize. (My file on the trial alone is over a thousand pages and I haven’t even been paying that careful attention.)

But today I want to make sure that the issue of Robert Novak’s behavior in identifying Valerie Plame’s identity in his column continues to receive the attention I believe it deserves. I do so not because I care about Novak per se. I don’t. Rather, Novak’s power and prestige derives from the fact that, despite his many journalistic and ethical transgressions, he remains protected inside the bosom of the Washington insider establishment. Given his behavior in this matter, this is indeed cause for scandal, whether Libby had been found guilty or not.

Remember that the Libby story began when Novak—alone among at least six professional journalists approached by Bush officials—proved willing to reveal the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson. (Wil­son, a former diplomat, had investigated, and found wanting, administration claims that the African nation of Niger had sold uranium to Iraq, thereby undermining the administration’s case for war.)

Recall also that it was George W. Bush’s father who, speaking at CIA headquarters in 1999, said, “I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious, of traitors.[1] This view is consistent with that articulated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told reporters, “Leaks put people’s lives at risk. And I think that the people in any branch of government have an obligation to manage their mouths in a way that does not put people’s lives at risk. Folks that leak and put people’s lives at risk ought to be in jail.”

Bush Sr. and Mr. Rumsfeld might get his wish with Libby—if Bush Jr. doesn’t pardon him—but in the case of the Novak feed, the reporter was handed the information by the president’s employees. As Novak would explain, “I didn’t dig it out [Plame’s identity], it was given to me … They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.”

(If Bush does pardon Libby—though one wonders why he didn’t do it before the trial exposed all the administration’s tawdry doings that Libby eventually took the fall for, he will, as Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball reported Thursday morning, be forced do violate his own Justice Department guidelines. According to those guidelines, Libby does not even qualify for consideration.)

In fact, the Bush administration may have desperately wished to blow Ms. Plame’s cover for its own political purposes, but the CIA sure didn’t want it to happen. Bill Harlow, the agency’s then-spokesperson, testified to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that at least three days before the column was published he warned Novak in the strongest possible terms that Plame’s name should not be revealed. Harlow said that he checked Plame’s status after speaking with Novak 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.[2] (In fact, Plame was not only a genuine C.I.A. undercover officer. She ran the Joint Task Force on Iraq, which was part of the Counterproliferation Division of the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Operations, working overseas, frequently under “nonofficial cover” on efforts to determine the scope of Iraq’s alleged WMD program.)[3]

Novak ignored these warnings, taking upon himself the responsibility for publicly blowing Plame’s cover and endangering both her and the operations that she had been a part of. Having received the leak from two administration officials—one of whom turned out to be the State Department’s Richard Armitage—he was apparently unconcerned about any damage he caused to U.S. national security.

Just to be sure he was on strong political ground, however, he sent the column to conservative super-lobbyist and close Karl Rove confidant Richard Hohlt before it was published. As Newsweek reported, “Indeed, Hohlt is such a good source that after Novak finished his column naming Plame he testified he did something most journalists rarely do: he gave the lobbyist an advance copy of his column. What Novak didn’t tell the jury is what the lobbyist then did with it: Hohlt confirmed to Newsweek that he faxed the forthcoming column to their mutual friend Karl Rove (one of Novak’s sources for the Plame leak), thereby giving the White House a heads up on the bombshell to come.”

The result: One CIA front company called Brewster-Jennings & Associates became public because it appeared in Federal Election Commission records on a form Plame had filled out in 1999 and was listed as her employer on her W-2 tax forms while she was working undercover.[4] Among Plame’s other responsibilities, we later learned, was the coordination of CIA research on weapons of mass destruction. Her blown cover set back this crucial effort and also made virtually everyone who ever cooperated with her vulnerable, particularly in rogue nations like Iran or North Korea where such cooperation would be tantamount to treason.

“The whole thing is just so distressing,” said one retired CIA case officer who spent his career working undercover outside the U.S. “If some idiot in the White House set out to do this malevolently, he ought to have his tongue cut off.”[5] But of course it was done malevolently. It was done to protect a lie designed to fool the country into a ruinous war.

So let’s do a quick recap: At the behest of Vice President Cheney, President Bush passed along what his advisers knew to be false information to the nation in his 2003 State of the Union address in order to trick the country into what has turned out to be a disastrously counterproductive war. When the man who was hired by the CIA at the behest of the vice president to investigate the story pointed out its lack of accuracy, the president and vice president authorized a series of leaks designed to assassinate his character. These efforts succeeded with only one journalist, who proceeded to reveal the name of a covert CIA agent and blow any number of covert intelligence programs—including, potentially, those involving our adversaries’ WMD programs—but not before clearing it with the president’s top adviser.

So what was the reaction of the media’s most important conservative voices to these highly nefarious, potentially treasonous activities? Naturally, it was to celebrate them. The Wall Street Journal editorial page announced that Rove “deserves a prize” for being a “whistleblower.” Novak retained his esteemed positions on The Washington Post editorial page and the allegedly liberal CNN until he lost his composure on the latter and uttered profanities on live television before walking off the set while the show was still on the air. (He was quickly picked up by Fox News, natch.) None of these conservatives, insofar as I am aware, condemned Novak for his undeniable role in endangering the lives and work of America’s undercover agents.

Novak himself termed the controversy to be based on “little elitist issues that don’t bother most of the people.” But as Frank Rich observed, “Those issues may not trouble Mr. Novak, but they do loom large to other people, especially those who sent their kids off to war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent uranium.”

I don’t know whether I. Lewis Libby will end up rotting in a lonely prison cell, but I do know one thing: He deserves company.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/

Endnotes

[1] Remarks by George H.W. Bush at the Dedication Ceremony for the George Bush Center of Intelligeence, April 26, 1999

[2] “Prosecutor In CIA Leak Case Casting A Wide Net,” The Washington Post, July 27, 2005

[3] Conason, Joe, “Media Misses the Point On CIA Leak Story,” The New York Observer, September 11, 2006

[4] “Leak of Agent’s Name Causes Exposure of CIA Front Firm,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2003

[5] “Critics See White House Double Standard on Leaks,” The Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2003

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