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Monday, August 01, 2005

Novak Breaks Silence, and GOP Argument

With a small number of exceptions, the despicable Bob Novak has stayed mostly quiet since his October 1, 2003, column explaining why his July 14, 2003, column was just dandy, and why PlameGate is in his opinion a tempest in a teapot. In a recent CNN interview, he said "I can't answer any questions about this case at all," later adding that when Fitz's case is closed, "I will reveal all in a column and on the air."

Today he has broken his silence. He says he does so against his lawyers' advice, because he simply must defend his reputation. Last Wednesday, the WaPo's Pincus-VandeHei article included this discussion concerning former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow:
[Harlow] said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission 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.
In today's column, Novak takes issue with that claim:
So, what was "wrong" with my column as Harlow claimed? There was nothing incorrect. He told the Post reporters he had "warned" me that if I "did write about it her name should not be revealed." That 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."
There are three things to note about this rejoinder of Novak's:
  1. Novak does not contradict Harlow's claim to have called Novak back. He contests other parts of the same sentence in the P-V article (for example, Harlow's apparent statement that Novak's description of events leading up to Wilson's trip as wrong). But he doesn't contest that Harlow called him back.
  2. [See Update 2 below; I think what I wrote originally is much less likely to be true in light of the update; I'll leave the text I wrote originally for posterity -- and humility.] Novak got the name "Plame" from Who's Who. This is at least the second time that Novak has noted that the name Plame appears in Joe Wilson's WW entry (the other written case I know about being Novak's October 1, 2003, column. This makes a lot of sense, actually.

    A while back I discussed an online profile of Joe Wilson that uses the name "Valerie Plame", but that profile refers to her as "the former Valerie Plame". So it's a good bet Novak didn't get it there. It also seems unlikely that he got it from anyone at CIA or otherwise in the loop. As I think I've discussed before, Joe Wilson insists (and that profile backs him up) that his wife's legal name is Valerie Wilson, and that her only use of "Plame" was as cover. So it seems weird to think either that the June, 2003, State INR memo would refer to her as Plame or that someone looking to discredit Wilson by leaking this story to a hack like Novak would say "Plame" rather than "Valerie Wilson" or even just Karl Rove's choice, "Joe Wilson's wife".

    So here's an easy story: Novak talks to two SAOs, who've heard somehow or another (via the State INR memo, Judy Miller, John Bolton, however) that Joe Wilson's wife is a CIA operative on WMD issues. Then Novak gets curious or wants to show off by using her name, so he does like any snob of his age and looks in Who's Who (Google be damned). Sure enough, there's the name, Valerie Plame. It would be interesting to know when the entry was written; I'd bet it was before she started using Plame as her cover name (I recall reading somewhere that her cover name has changed over time, including during the years (10?) that she has been married to Joe Wilson).

  3. Novak evidently has little patience for the (absurd) GOP/Luskin/Fox/etc argument that Rove & Co are in trouble only if they used Joe Wilson's wife's name: "That is meaningless. Once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified...". Maybe someone in the MSM should call Ken Mehlman and ask him what he thinks about Novak's torpedoig of the GOP line.
Novak goes on to say:
I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Harlow, then-CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody.
Kind of a catch 22 for Harlow/CIA, isn't it? Tell Novak what he wants to know to agree not to publish, and you -- personally -- violate the IIPA. Don't tell him, and he outs your agent anyway.

Raise your hand if you'd commit a felony to exactly zero effect.

Update: ThinkProgress has just noted this same issue.

Update 2: Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum both refer to this Newsday article by Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce from July 21, 2003, in which they quote Novak as saying:
Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it." [Emphasis added.]
I'd forgotten about this statement of Novak's. It certainly does make it hard to buy the casual explanation he provided in yesterday's column or his October 1, 2003, piece, and it also makes one doubt the Who's Who explanation I piled onto above.

5 Comments:

Blogger strategery4 said...

Seems like this stuff also lends credence to the argument that Rove and the other leakers were ALSO trying to fuck the case-for-WMD-wasn't-as-strong-as-you-guys-said CIA staff. So it's not just that Wilson was a pussy for GETTING the assignment via his wife, but that the CIA was a bunch of pussies for GIVING it to him in that way. Of course, sliming isn't a zero-sum game -- they could be going after Wilson AND the CIA in one swipe.

Also, apropos of nothing, just reporting that I'm back from vacation -- made it to a red state and back and lived to tell. And I can confirm that The Daily Show is shown in Alabama, though I don't know how many people watch it.

8/02/2005 11:41 AM  
Anonymous bu$h ate my baby said...

"Novak goes on to say:

I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Harlow, then-CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody.

Kind of a catch 22 for Harlow/CIA, isn't it? Tell Novak what he wants to know to agree not to publish, and you -- personally -- violate the IIPA. Don't tell him, and he outs your agent anyway."

Your catch 22 hypothesis is an interesting one. He wants to do what I would consider the right thing (not disclose classified information that through disclosure would harm national security interests), but is he creating a situation whereby the government can never say no, don't publish that? My understanding is that he has in the past not reported information for claimed national security reasons, so on a practical level he seemed to have negotiated those rapids.

Your post suggests a solicitousness with regard to journalists publishing classified information that I frankly did not suspect. Let me ask a generic question: do you think it is a violation of law or journalist ethics for a journalist to report classified information? If so, what are the circumstances when it is a violation, and when is it permissible? Perhaps in your example you could use as a case study the New York Times' recent exposure of a purportedly civilian airline as a CIA operation.

8/02/2005 1:48 PM  
Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...

peter

first let me say that, intentionally or not, you seem to have confused my catch 22 point. i was not saying that Novak faced a catch 22. rather i was saying Harlow faced one, and that novak is full of it for suggesting that Harlow could simply have told him "don't print your story b/c she's undercover." that is the whole point of the catch 22 point.

as for the rest:

actually i think and have thought that the nyt airline story was a very interesting juxtaposition to the plame affair. i will try to say sth about it later -- for the moment let me just say that i think there have been some potential double-standards on both sides.

as for journalistic ethics, that's obviously not my strong suit, but it is really quite clear from novak's string of statements on this issue -- many of which are self-contradictory -- that his initial goal was to discredit joe wilson and his subsequent goal has to protect self, rove, and whoever else he knows is dirty.

he has shown little if any interest in the natl security ramifications (compare to calame's defense of the nyt wr2 the airline: if i remember right, he said that people could have found much if not all of the info the nyt published in public records, whereas that is *not* true of joe wilson's wife's job at the cia. moreover, novak doesn't say he wasn't called back by harlow.)

just last night my lady and i had a conversation about the question of whether there was any way for novak to write his story with the force he thought it should have without identifying joe wilson's wife. i'm not sure there was (what should he say? that "someone close to joe wilson works on wmd at the cia"? i'm not sure that gets the point across. of course, the point he was trying to get across was a dishonest nonsequitur, so he gets no comfort from me for pushing the story.).

so, if you take the view that novak is a decent guy just trying to get the truth out, i can see why you might conclude -- on only that narrow basis -- that his actions weren't journalistically unethical.

but imho that is a preposterous view to take given novak's history of hackery and dishonesty.

8/02/2005 2:10 PM  
Anonymous bu$h ate my baby said...

Sorry, I understood that the catch-22 was Harlow's. My point was that, since Novak seems to want to not report information that truly is against the national interest, and since he has said that he has withheld information in the past that he has been told would harm the national interest if reported, then whomever was on the government side seemed to have come up with a way of negotiating the rapids without violating the IIPA or other law.

Even assuming you don't believe in Novak's good intentions, there must be other journalists out there who wouldn't want to report information truly harmful to national security, so there must be some mechanism that allows the government to tell journalists same without thereby revealing classified information.

I'm glad you're going to address the NYT piece -- I'll look forward to that.

8/02/2005 2:32 PM  
Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...

ok, glad for the clarification. on this:

Even assuming you don't believe in Novak's good intentions, there must be other journalists out there who wouldn't want to report information truly harmful to national security, so there must be some mechanism that allows the government to tell journalists same without thereby revealing classified information.

well, this is probly a tricky question in general. in this specific case, tho, harlow says he told novak his story was "wrong" (quotes from WaPo, not necly harlow). it's pretty clear from the P-V article that harlow says he tried to get novak to spike the story. novak decided to ignore those wishes. leaving aside the question of whether or not it was ethical for novak to write the story (awa whether it would have been ethical for him not to write the story just b/c harlow suggests one way or another that he shouldn't) i don't really see a middle ground in this case.

which is, of course, not to say there aren't other cases that do have middle grounds.

8/02/2005 4:31 PM  

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