Robert Novak's desperate damage control

The conservative columnist's attempts to downplay the Valerie Plame scandal are raising more questions than they answer.

Published October 2, 2003 10:36PM (EDT)

Robert Novak should have quit while he was ahead.

After the Washington Post's Page 1 scoop on Sunday, alleging two White House officials had leaked the identity of an undercover CIA officer whose diplomat husband had been critical of war with Iraq, conservative syndicated columnist Novak found himself at the center of a Beltway whodunit: Who were the two secretive sources who violated federal law by identifying an undercover CIA operative?

The Washington Post called it "one heckuva leak." Novak wasn't the only journalist who received such a briefing back in July, but he was the only one who went public with the information. The leak, in violation of a 1982 federal law that prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a clandestine intelligence officer, is now the center of a criminal investigation that has rattled the White House.

But rather than sit back and watch the fireworks he helped set off, Novak, busy spinning on behalf of the White House and in classic damage control mode, is raising more questions than he's answering, and having a hard time keeping his stories straight.

At least three key points of Novak's argument have all proven faulty: that the CIA officer in question is simply an analyst, not an undercover operative, so no harm came from making her identity known; that it was her idea to get her husband involved in investigating claims about Saddam Hussein; and that the unfolding leak investigation is "routine."

An aide to Novak says the columnist is not talking: "All he has to say he said in his column today."

The controversy was triggered this summer by a New York Times opinion piece written by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson. In it, he revealed that in 2002 he traveled to Niger on an assignment for the CIA to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from the African nation. Wilson wrote that he reported back that the claims were likely bogus, yet President Bush still included mention of the uranium plot in this year's State of the Union address.

One week after Wilson's Op-Ed, Novak wrote a piece defending the White House, arguing that Wilson's trip to Niger was arranged by his wife, Valerie Plame, "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Wilson says the White House disclosure was meant as a public warning to others in the intelligence community, cautioning them from coming forward and questioning the administration's war policy. According to a Tuesday Washington Post report, citing one anonymous journalist who was also on the receving end of a Plame leak last summer, administration officials thought Wilson was getting a good ride in the press. The suggestion was that if it were known that his wife, a CIA operative, somehow masterminded Wilson's trip to Niger, that would take some of the luster off the story.

On Sunday the Post revived the story by quoting an anonymous White House source, who reported that two administration aides had contacted six separate journalists over the summer to reveal Plame's identity, and that a criminal probe was underway. Suddenly Novak's July column was back front-and-center.

Novak's first public response came during Monday's "Crossfire" on CNN, which he co-hosts. He insisted, "Nobody in the White House called me to leak me this."

Of course, the question is not whether the White House called Novak or he dialed them, or even whether his "two senior administration sources" asked Novak to make the Plame information public. The law was broken when the White House insiders identified to Novak the name of a covert agent.

It's a classic strawman defense, and Novak certainly knew it. Yet in Wednesday's column, he continued the cover, insisting, "I did not receive a planned leak." Planned leak? Whether or not it was orchestrated -- and according to the Washington Post's reporting, the fact that five other journalists got the same Plame tip certainly indicates it was -- is irrelevant to the crime committed.

On CNN Monday, Novak recounted how the story came about: "In July I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson's report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction."

In Wednesday's column Novak again stressed how the information about Plame practically fell into his lap, almost as an afterthought from a Bush insider. He wrote it came up "during a long conversation with a senior administration official." And, "It was an offhand revelation from this official."

Yet back in July, he gave a much different account to Newsday: "I didn't dig [the Plame tip] out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

On Monday, Novak went on to say that when he contacted the CIA in July in preparation for his column, he was asked not to disclose Plame's name, "but [the agency] never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else." Instead, he was led to believe that she was "an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives."

Then why, having just gotten off the phone with the CIA, and under the strong impression Plame was not an operative, did Novak proceed to type up his column and label her "an Agency operative"?

After the controversy erupted, Novak backed away from the operative claim. In Wednesday's column, he acknowledged his original error, noting "an unofficial source at the Agency says she has been an analyst, not in covert operations." The implication was that exposing her identity did no damage.

For a journalist with four decades of experience to take the extraordinary step of going public with a CIA agent's identity, Novak seemed to be incredibly careless. And nonchalant. He told the Washington Post this week he inserted Plame's identity "almost in passing."

But another problem with Novak's flip-flop about Plame's title is it's dead wrong. On Tuesday night's "Newshour," on PBS, Larry Johnson, a former counterterrorism official at the CIA and the State Department, insisted Plame had worked undercover.

Additionally, a former senior CIA intelligence officer confirms to Salon that Plame is both an analyst and an officer who works undercover, and was undercover when Novak outed her. Now that her identity has been exposed she cannot again work overseas, and the network of agents she once oversaw may be at risk.

What does that say about the quality of Novak's "confidential source at the CIA" who claimed otherwise?

In his July column, Novak repeated the White House conspiracy theory that it was Wilson's wife who suggested he go to Africa and investigate the yellowcake claim. Yet in his most recent dispatch, Novak reveals in July the CIA denied "Wilson's wife had inspired his selection." Why didn't Novak inform readers of that last summer?

Novak's latest spin package also suggests the ongoing leak investigation is "routine." He's only half right. Any time there is a claim of an unauthorized leak, the CIA is required by law to pass a referral along to the Department of Justice. There are usually 50 or 60 such referrals each year. After reviewing the claim, the DOJ goes back to the CIA and asks for a damage assessment. How serious was the matter; were agents put at risk? That's also routine.

What's not mundane, though, as Novak certainly knows, is for the FBI to then launch a full-scale leak investigation, which is what's now underway.

And finally, in July, when preparing his column, Novak called Wilson to try to get confirmation about his wife's employment. Wilson declined, but he told CNN that Novak claimed he'd gotten the tip from "a CIA source." But when Novak's column appeared, he informed readers he was relying on "two senior administration officials," not a CIA informant. When Wilson called Novak on it after the column ran, Novak said he "misspoke" when he mentioned a CIA source.

Is there a working journalist in America with whom that explanation rings true? They get a scoop, call up a pivotal player for confirmation, and then somehow bungle the characterization of their source?

A more plausible explanation is Novak downplayed his sourcing on the phone, knowing that if he told Wilson that someone in the administration, and possibly even the White House, had leaked his wife's CIA identity, Wilson would have read Novak the riot act, and pointed out the illegality of such a dirty political smear. (It would also be illegal for anyone inside the CIA to make Plame's identity known, but somehow more understandable than if it came from the purely political White House source.)

In Wednesday's column, Novak wrote he never thought he'd write about Wilson again, but given the controversy, he felt "constrained to do so." Given that his latest explanations have only muddied the water, odds are he'll have to return to the topic yet again.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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