There's a reason that criminal defendants don't often take the witness stand in their own trials. Once they've testified -- once they've set out their own selective or self-serving version of the facts -- the prosecution gets a shot at cross-examination. The defendant's past becomes grist for questioning his credibility, and he is forced to answer questions on subjects about which he would have preferred to remain silent.
Oh, to have Robert Novak on the stand today.
The Chicago Sun-Times columnist and CNN pundit was the first journalist to report that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA, and it was his July 2003 column that gave birth to the entire Plame scandal. But aside from a follow-up column in October 2003, Novak has remained more or less silent about the Plame case, repeatedly brushing off questions with the claim that his lawyers have advised him not to speak and the promise that he'll tell all as soon as the Plame case has come to a close.
It turns out Novak couldn't wait -- not to come clean about who first leaked Plame's identity to him, but to defend his own "integrity" against the charge that he published his first Plame column over the objections of a CIA spokesman who told him he had his facts wrong. In a new column out today, Novak takes great offense at the 16th and 17th paragraphs of a story that ran in the Washington Post last week. In those paragraphs, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow says that he appeared before Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury last year, and that he testified then that he'd spoken with Novak twice about Plame before Novak published the column in which he outed her. In both conversations, Harlow said he warned Novak that Plame hadn't authorized Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger and that he shouldn't use her name if he wrote about the issue.
Novak is outraged -- so much so, he says, that he's written an entire column about the charge over the objections of his own lawyers. "The allegation against me is so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist that I feel constrained to reply," Novak writes. The points Novak just has to make: He says he didn't ask Harlow whether Plame had "authorized" Wilson's trip to Niger but only whether she had "suggested" it, and he says that Harlow never warned him that Plame would be in danger if he revealed her identity.
They're valid points to make, we suppose -- assuming, for the moment, that they're true -- but it's also fair to ask about Novak's rather selective sense of outrage. He'll ignore his lawyers' advice in order to come to his own defense, but what does he have to say about Karl Rove? About the other "senior administration official" who leaked Plame's identity to him? About Judith Miller, who is sitting in a Virginia jail while Novak is free to pontificate on air and in print?
You can't get away with testifying so selectively on the witness stand, and Novak's editors and colleagues in the mainstream press shouldn't let him get away with it here. If Novak wants to talk about his role in the Plame case, he ought to be prepared to answer some questions about it, too.