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High Crimes of Bob Novak

The columnist willfully disregarded warnings that blowing the cover of Valerie Plame would put her in jeopardy.
 
 
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Two government officials have told the FBI that conservative columnist Robert Novak was asked specifically not to publish the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in his now-famous July 14 newspaper column. The two officials told investigators they warned Novak that by naming Plame he might potentially jeopardize her ability to engage in covert work, stymie ongoing intelligence operations, and jeopardize sensitive overseas sources.

These new accounts, provided by a current and former administration official close to the situation, directly contradict public statements made by Novak. He has downplayed his own knowledge about the potential harm to Plame and ongoing intelligence operations by making that disclosure. He has also claimed in various public statements that intelligence officials falsely led him to believe that Plame was only an analyst, and the only potential consequences of her exposure as a CIA officer would be that she might be inconvenienced in her foreign travels.

The two administration officials questioned by the FBI characterized Novak's statements as untrue and misleading, according to a government official and an attorney official familiar with the FBI interviews.

One of the sources also asserted that the credibility of the administration officials who spoke to the FBI is enhanced by the fact that the officials made their statement to the federal law enforcement authorities. If the officials were found to be lying to the FBI, they could be potentially prosecuted for making false statements to federal investigators the sources pointed out.

Novak declined to be interviewed for this article.

The two officials say Novak was told, as one source put it, that Plame's work for the CIA "went much further than her being an analyst," and that publishing her name would be "hurtful" and could stymie ongoing intelligence operations and jeopardize her overseas sources.

"When [Novak] says that he was not told that he was 'endangering' someone, that statement might be technically true," this source says. "Nobody directly told him that she was going to be physically hurt. But that was implicit in that he was told what she did for a living."

"At best, he is parsing words," said the other official. "At worst, he is lying to his readers and the public. Journalists should not lie, I would think." These new accounts, provided by two sources familiar to the investigation, contradict Novak's attempts to downplay his own knowledge about the potential harm to Plame.

Moreover, one of the government officials who has told federal investigators that Novak's account is false has also turned over to investigators contemporaneous notes he made of at least one conversation with Novak. Those notes, according to sources, appear to corroborate the official's version of events.

That the FBI interviewed the officials who warned Novak not to publish Plame's name could not be independently corroborated through federal law-enforcement authorities. That's not surprising — the investigation has been shrouded in secrecy.

Over the past several months, the FBI has interviewed more than 30 Bush administration officials and has reviewed phone logs, personal calendars, and e-mail records, according to government sources. But Attorney General John Ashcroft tightly controlled information gathered during the probe, requiring FBI agents to sign unprecedented nondisclosure agreements that say they could face immediate termination if they speak to the press. As a result, scant information about the leak investigation has appeared in the media, making it all but disappear as a political issue for the Bush administration until the disclosure last week that a federal grand jury had been convened to hear evidence in the matter.

On December 30, Ashcroft recused himself from the case so a special counsel, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, could take over. And on January 21, a federal grand jury in Washington began hearing evidence, re-interviewing witnesses, and notifying others that they will be called. At least four Bush administration officials have testified so far before the grand jury.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey said the secrecy surrounding the investigation would continue -- partly because "we don't want to smear somebody who might be innocent and might not be charged."

Shortly after his column appeared, Novak seemed to suggest that the information about Plame was planted as part of a White House campaign. In an interview with Newsday reporters Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce, he said, "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant. They gave me the name and I used it."

Then Novak started to backtrack, giving the impression that the leak was more the result of his own initiative than from a White House source. He also claimed the Newsday reporters quoted him out of context, an accusation both reporters deny. (Full disclosure: Royce is my longtime friend.)

Novak made another statement about his column during a September 29 broadcast of CNN's Crossfire. "Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this," he said. "In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson's report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing.

"When I called the CIA in July, they confirmed Mrs. Wilson's involvement in a mission for her husband on a secondary basis ... they asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else.

"According to a confidential source at the CIA, Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives. So what is the fuss about, pure Bush-bashing?"

In his July 14 column, Novak claimed that Plame had played a role in the selection of her husband for a mission to Niger to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was buying enriched uranium. Yet White House and CIA officials have since said that Wilson, a former national-security senior director for African affairs, was chosen only because of his expertise, and that his wife had no role in his selection.

A government official also questions Novak's claims that the columnist "called the CIA" and "they confirmed Mrs. Wilson's involvement in her husband's mission." Rather, this person says, the CIA at first declined to comment. Still later, the same official contends that Novak was categorically told that Plame had played no role in the selection of her husband for the Niger mission.

"He was told it just wasn't true -- period," said the government official. "But he just went with the story anyway. He just didn't seemed to care very much whether the information was true or not."

Apparently the leak to Novak was made as senior Bush administration officials were reportedly attempting to discredit Wilson, who had been saying that the administration had relied on faulty intelligence information to bolster its case to go to war with Iraq.(President Bush had cited the Niger evidence in his 2003 State of the Union address.)

Congressional Democrats and some members of the Bush administration say the purpose of the leak was not only to discredit Wilson but also to intimidate other government officials from coming forward to question the administration's rationale for war.

Steve Huntley, the editorial-page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, which is the flagship newspaper for Novak's syndicated column, says he "implicitly and completely trusts Bob Novak's reporting."

Fred Hiatt, the editorial-page editor of The Washington Post, which also ran Novak's column, declined to comment. Previously, though, he told his newspaper's ombudsman, Michael Getler, "In retrospect, I wish I had asked more questions, and I wish Bob had informed us and his readers that he had considered, and rejected, a CIA request to withhold her name."

(After Novak's column appeared, an anonymous administration official said the CIA warned Novak of "security concerns" that would arise if he were to publish Plame's name. Novak has disputed that account as well.)

In an online column, "Take Three Steps to Avoid Future Novaks," Aly Colón of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit, educational organization for journalists, writes, "There's an old adage that claims journalists are only as good as the sources that feed them. Here's a new one: Journalists are only as credible as the ethics that guide them. By disclosing the identity of a CIA operative, Novak provoked a Justice Department investigation of his sources and raised serious questions about his ethical conduct."

What if Novak indeed purposely mislead readers of his column-- as the two administration officials have asserted to the FBI?

In an interview, Colón, while saying he could not speak to the specifics of this particular story said: "Any time a journalist purposely deceives his readers, he undermines the newsperson's or [his or her own] news organization's credibility" and "threatens the trust between the reader and reporter."

Murray Waas is a Washington journalist. Research assistance for this article was provided by Thomas Lang.