Friday, February 18, 2005

DID NOVAK TALK? A Media Log reader (I've forgotten who; Tim Francis-Wright says it wasn't him, and I've updated this item accordingly) suggested that I look up Nina Totenberg's remarks on NPR from Wednesday morning. It was an excellent suggestion: Totenberg offered the most plausible explanation yet for why New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper face jail while syndicated columnist Robert Novak - the journalist who actually revealed Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA "operative" - is apparently being left alone.

The nickel backgrounder: Plame is the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was highly critical of the Bush administration in the summer of 2003, claiming the White House had ignored his earlier report that Saddam Hussein had not sought uranium in Niger. Novak blew Plame's cover several weeks later. There is at least a possibility that the "senior administration officials" to whom Novak spoke acted deliberately to ruin Plame's career in retaliation for Wilson's criticism.

Okay, back to NPR. Toward the end of a brief interview with Morning Edition co-anchor Steve Inskeep, Totenberg had this to say:

I can only speculate here. Since Robert Novak was the prime mover in this story, we have to assume, if we're speculating, that he has, in some measure, cooperated with the prosecutors and said to them, "So-and-so gave me this information, but he had no idea she was an undercover agent. Therefore, he wasn't committing a crime. This wasn't part of any larger strategy to discredit Ambassador Wilson." If there wasn't any strategy, well, then other reporters wouldn't have been called by the same source. So conceivably, what the prosecutor is trying to do here is find out if there was a strategy to discredit Ambassador Wilson and, if there was, if the people who had the strategy knew that Valerie Plame was a covert operative didn't care and disclosed her name anyway.

You can listen for yourself here.

Totenberg's analysis makes a great deal of sense. Remember, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to determine not just the identities of the "senior administration officials" who ratted out Plame to Novak, but also whether they committed a crime, something that is rather murky. (Slate's Jack Shafer explained this in October 2003.)

Totenberg's theory also matches up well with the defense that Novak himself offered before he stopped talking about this in public - a defense that I described in a Phoenix piece in October 2003:

The idea that Plame was covert, but not all that covert, has been at the heart of Novak's defense. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press this past Sunday (following Wilson; too bad host Tim Russert couldn't get them on together), Novak stuck to the line he took in his October 1 column, contending that the revelation had been offered to him "off-handedly," and that he didn't attach all that much importance to it. And though he conceded that he was asked not to name her, he contended he wasn't asked with much conviction.

"If they'd said she was in danger, I never would have written the column," he said. Indeed, he added, if his source really didn't want Plame outed, all that person had to do was get [then-CIA director] George Tenet on the phone.

Novak's account was intriguing, raising the question of when a request not to name an undercover CIA employee is sincere, and when it is merely ass-covering. So, too, was Novak's explanation of why he originally called Plame "an agency operative," which suggests something rather serious: he said he tends to call lots of people "operatives," including "political hacks," and that it was more unthinking cliché on his part than considered description. In fact, Novak said, she is an "analyst," and he challenged anyone to look up his use of the word operative on Lexis-Nexis. I took the challenge, and found that he has used the word about 200 times over the past 10 years. So score one for the Prince of Darkness.

None of this changes my view that Novak needs to come clean. We already know that the Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Russert himself were interviewed by Fitzgerald, and that they say they did not give up any confidential sources. (For that matter, so did Cooper, until Fitzgerald came after him again.) Novak needs to do likewise.

THE PROCONSUL COMES HOME. Slate's Fred Kaplan explains why John Negroponte's appointment as national intelligence director may bode well. I'm skeptical. I haven't forgotten Negroponte's role in looking the other way at human-rights abuses in Central America in the 1980s. And neither has Eric Alterman, who writes about it in yesterday's Altercation.


Steve said...

Just a plug for my favorite analysis of the Novak situation "Bob in Paradise" by Amy Sullivan.

"His set-up is nearly perfect—as a syndicated opinion columnist and executive producer of his own show, Novak can say what he wants without fear of punitive consequences, and he can ignore what he wants, safe in the knowledge that no one of significance will ever press him. He is hardly alone in being used by sources or having dicey conflicts of interest. But unlike journalists Dan Rather and Howell Raines, who provided full explanations and apologies once their errors were revealed—and who faced well-organized mau-mauing campaigns waged by critics on the right—Novak is an island, untouched by criticism. His privileged position would count for nothing if his peers and colleagues held him accountable."

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the post, Steve, Amy Sullivan very nicely sums up. Dan also has succinct piece. Novak, a denizen of the sludge, has always made a living answering the phone rather than wearing out shoe leather. It's instinctive and judicious to smell a rat when he's in the area.

Anonymous said...

What about a simpler explanation for why Novak has apparently remained above the fray: Novak has already testified, he lied when he did so, the prosecutor knows it, and he's aggressively pursuing other reporters (like Miller and Cooper) so that he can both find the real leaker and prosecute Novak for perjury. I've posted about this here and here.