A strange encounter with Robert Novak

Just days before he revealed that my wife was a CIA operative, a friend had a weird run-in with the right-wing columnist. An excerpt from "The Politics of Truth."

Topics: CIA, White House, Books,

A strange encounter with Robert Novak

Late on Tuesday afternoon, July 8, six days before Robert Novak’s article about Valerie and me, a friend showed up at my office with a strange and disturbing tale. He had been walking down Pennsylvania Avenue toward my office near the White House when he came upon Novak, who, my friend assumed, was en route to the George Washington University auditorium for the daily taping of CNN’s “Crossfire.” He asked Novak if he could walk a block or two with him, as they were headed in the same direction; Novak acquiesced. Striking up a conversation, my friend, without revealing that he knew me, asked Novak about the uranium controversy. It was a minor problem, Novak replied, and opined that the administration should have dealt with it weeks before. My friend then asked Novak what he thought about me, and Novak answered: “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.” At that point, my friend and Novak went their separate ways. My friend headed straight for my office a couple of blocks away.

Once he related this unsettling story to me, I asked him to immediately write down the details of the conversation and afterwards ushered him out of my office. Next, I contacted the head of the news division at CNN, Eason Jordan, Novak’s titular boss, whom I had known for a number of years. It took several calls, but I finally tracked him down on his cell phone. I related to him the details of my friend’s encounter with Novak and pointed out that whatever my wife might or might not be, it was the height of irresponsibility for Novak to share such information with an absolute stranger on a Washington street. I asked him to speak to Novak for me, but he demurred — he said he did not know him very well — and suggested that I speak to Novak myself. I arranged for him to have Novak call me and hung up.

Novak called the next morning, but I was out, and then so was he. We did not connect until the following day, July 10. He listened quietly as I repeated to him my friend’s account of their conversation. I told him I couldn’t imagine what had possessed him to blurt out to a complete stranger what he had thought he knew about my wife.

Novak apologized, and then asked if I would confirm what he had heard from a CIA source: that my wife worked at the Agency. I told him that I didn’t answer questions about my wife. I told him that my story was not about my wife or even about me; it was about sixteen words in the State of the Union address.

I then read to him three sentences from a 1990 news story about the evacuation of Baghdad: “The chief American diplomat, Joe Wilson, shepherds his flock of some 800 known Americans like a village priest. At 4:30 Sunday morning, he was helping 55 wives and children of U.S. diplomats from Kuwait load themselves and their few remaining possessions on transport for the long haul on the desert to Jordan. He shows the stuff of heroism.” The reporters who had written this, I pointed out, were Robert Novak and Rowland Evans. I suggested to Novak that he might want to check his files before writing about me. I also offered to send him all the articles I had written in the past year on policy toward Iraq so that he could educate himself on the positions I had taken. He would learn, if he took the time, that I was hardly antiwar, just anti-dumb war. Before I hung up, Novak apologized again for having spoken about Valerie to a complete stranger.

The following Monday, July 14, 2003, I read Novak’s syndicated column in the Washington Post. The sixth paragraph of the ten-paragraph story leapt out at me: “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.”

When I showed it to Valerie, she was stoic in her manner but I could see she was crestfallen. Twenty years of loyal service down the drain, and for what, she asked after she had read it. What was Novak trying to say? What did blowing her cover have to do with the story? It was nothing but a hatchet job. She immediately began to prepare a checklist of things she needed to do to minimize the fallout to projects she was working on. Ever efficient, she jotted down reminders to mask the emotions swirling through her body. Finally, as the enormity of what Novak had done now settled on her, she sat in the corner and wondered aloud if she would still have any friends left after they found out that the person they knew was not her at all but a lie that she lived very convincingly.

Amid the welter of emotions I felt that morning, I tried to understand a particular element of Novak’s story.

He cited not a CIA source, as he had indicated on the phone four days earlier, but rather two senior administration sources; I called him for a clarification. He asked if I was very displeased with the article, and I replied that I did not see what the mention of my wife had added to it but that the reason for my call was to question his sources. When we first spoke, he had cited to me a CIA source, yet his published story cited two senior administration sources. He replied: “I misspoke the first time we talked.”

A couple of days before Novak’s article was published, but after my friend’s strange encounter with him, I had received a call from Post reporter Walter Pincus, who alerted me that “they are coming after you.” Since I already knew what Novak had learned about Valerie, I was increasingly concerned over what else might be put out about her. I assumed, though, that the CIA would itself quash any article that made reference to Valerie. While not yet familiar with the specifics of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, I knew that protection of the identity of agents in our clandestine service was the highest priority, and well understood by the experienced press corps in Washington. Novak had still been trolling for sources when we spoke on the telephone, so I assumed that he did not have the confirmations he would need from the CIA to publish the story. I told Valerie, who alerted the press liaison at the CIA, and we were left with the reasonable expectation that any reference to her would be dropped, since he would have no way of confirming the information — unless, of course, he got confirmations from another part of the government, such as the White House.

Quite apart from the matter of her employment, the assertion that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger was false on the face of it. Anyone who knows anything about the government bureaucracy knows that public servants go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it. Family members are expressly forbidden from accepting employment that places them in any direct professional relationship, even once or twice removed. Absurd as these lengths may seem, a supervisor literally cannot even supervise the supervisor of the supervisor of another family member without high-level approval. Valerie could not have stood in the chain of command had she tried to. Dick Cheney might be able to find a way to appoint one of his daughters to a key decision-making position in the State Department’s Middle East Bureau, as he did; but Valerie could not — and would not if she could — have had anything to do with the CIA decision to ask me to travel to Niamey.

The publication of the article marked a turning point in our lives. There was no possibility of Valerie recovering her former life. She would never be able to regain the anonymity and secrecy that her professional life had required; she would not be able to return to her discreet work on some of the most sensitive threats to our society in the foreseeable future, and perhaps ever.

I had many questions for Novak: What did the inclusion of Valerie’s name add to his article? So what if she worked on intelligence related to weapons of mass destruction? There was nothing nefarious about that. All this had happened because Novak chose not to heed the entreaties of government officials to whom he spoke and who, by Novak’s own admission, asked that he not publish her name or employment. While Novak has since downplayed the request of the CIA that he not publish her name, I wondered which part of “NO” he didn’t understand.

Lamely attempting to shirk responsibility, Novak claimed that the CIA no was “a soft no, not a hard no.” On the wings of that ludicrous defense, he soared to new heights of journalistic irresponsibility. But Novak has long since demonstrated that he is not so much a scrupulous journalist as he is a confirmed purveyor of the right-wing party line, whether it’s touting the truth or — as it all too often is, unfortunately — promoting the big lie. In this instance, in addition to buying into the big lie, Novak was slavishly doing the bidding of the cowards in the administration who had decided that the only way to discredit me was to betray national security. I will defend his First Amendment rights as a journalist, but I don’t have to like what he did. In fact, watching Valerie’s face fall as she realized that her life had been so irreparably altered, I felt that punching the man in the nose would not have been an unreasonable response.

I decided that I would not rise to Novak’s bait or dignify his article with a published response, and that I would not speak about Valerie other than hypothetically. It was not up to me to confirm or deny her employment; it was up to the CIA. A few days later, Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps, whom I had met in Iraq twelve years earlier, informed me that he had heard from the CIA that what Novak had reported vis-à-vis Valerie’s employment was not incorrect. I declined to be drawn into a confirmation even then.

That same week, on Thursday, July 17, David Corn called to alert me that what Novak had done, or at least what the person who had leaked Valerie’s name to him had done, was possibly a crime, in that it might represent a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. Corn then published a detailed explanation of the law to ensure that other journalists, as well as regular readers of the Nation, understood all the legalities involved.

Toward the end of that week, network producers and television correspondents were calling with rapidly mounting frequency. We had clearly entered a new phase. The questions were no longer about whether or not Valerie was CIA; rather, they sought to uncover some supposedly as-yet-unexplained link between the two of us and the trip to Niger.

Over the weekend, the calls became more insistent and more pointed. And the sources being cited by the reporters were consistently “White House officials or senior White House officials,” so I could only conclude that the decision to push the story had been made at a high level in the administration. At that point, I knew that I would have to address the issue more publicly.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who had been guest-hosting “Meet the Press” when I’d been on the show two weeks earlier, reached me at home on the Sunday night after Novak’s article appeared to ask for my reaction to “what White House sources were telling her about the real story being not the sixteen words but Wilson and his wife.” I agreed to do an interview with her the following day in my office. Although I had planned not to appear on any television shows prior to Thursday, July 24, when I was scheduled to do “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart, I felt I had no choice but to try to stop the White House from continuing to push this canard.

The principal question remained unanswered: Who had so badly served the president? Who Valerie was and what she did, or who I was and what I did, were merely the administration’s means of obfuscating the real issue and confusing the public. The White House was trying to fling dust into the eyes of the press and public while descending into what a Republican staffer on the Hill later called a “slime-and-defend” mode.

On Monday morning, July 21, I sat down with Andrea and answered her questions. I was scrupulous in speaking about Valerie only hypothetically; I was careful to qualify my statements and to use the subjunctive: “If she were as Novak alleged, then…” In response to Andrea’s questions regarding statements made by White House officials about Valerie’s professional life and its connection to me, I noted that the sources of the original leaks from the administration to Novak might have violated the law.

When the interview aired on the Monday evening news, NBC had systematically edited out every one of my qualifiers regarding Valerie’s status, no doubt because of time constraints. They thus substantively changed the tenor of the interview and gave CIA lawyers cause to briefly consider whether or not I myself might have been in violation of the same law as the senior administration officials who had originally leaked the information about Valerie to Novak. I later called Andrea to request a copy of the full interview, so as to be able to defend myself, but NBC policy disallows providing transcripts of interviews in their unedited versions. I asked Andrea therefore to make sure that the full interview was preserved on tape in the event legal questions arose in the future. She agreed to do so.

That afternoon I received the call from Chris Matthews tersely informing me that Karl Rove had entered the fray with the comment that my wife was “fair game.” To make a political point, to defend a political agenda, to blur the truth that one of the president’s own staffers had scripted a lie into the president’s mouth, one of the administration’s most senior officials found it perfectly acceptable to push a story that exposed a national security asset. It was appalling.

The next morning I appeared on the “Today” show. Katie Couric was the interviewer. Unfortunately, I was on remote location, in Washington — my one chance to sit face-to-face with “America’s sweetheart,” and all I could see was the unblinking eye of the camera in front of me. At least the spot was televised live, so the hypotheticals that I used to qualify what I said about Valerie were not edited out. Again I made the point that the leak might well have been a violation of the law.

Although I received hundreds of phone calls from the national and international press in subsequent days, not once did I again hear a reporter cite White House sources in relation to that particular story. In the weeks ahead, the attacks from the White House reverted to more typical forms of character assassination.

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