Robert Novak

The hollow center of the Plame Affair.

Robert Novak tried to explain away the latest Bush administration scandal—which is so far going by the promisingly -gate-free name “The Plame Affair”—in his Wednesday column, in which he chalked up the mess the White House finds itself in to a bad case of “anti-Bush furor.” “My role and the role of the Bush White House have been distorted and need explanation,” wrote Novak, explaining that he wasn’t cold-called by the White House with the information that Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA officer. Bush administration defenders are citing Novak’s follow-up column as evidence that the White House is not guilty as charged, and Bush critics are citing it as “desperate damage control.” The hubbub obscures a larger, more important point: Who cares what Robert Novak thinks about this scandal?

Despite initial appearances, Novak will likely play an incredibly small role in the Plame Affair from here on out. Sure, the information he published in his July column about Wilson demonstrates that two senior administration officials may have broken the law. But that’s been known for more than two months, and until Sunday, most of the carping was confined to the left-leaning portions of the blogosphere and to liberal publications such as The Nation. The Plame Affair didn’t take off until a second leak: On Sept. 28, the Washington Post reported that “a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife.” The central questions of the scandal are, who are the six journalists, what were they told, who told them, and why?

So far, it doesn’t appear that we know the identity of a single one of the six journalists. Novak says he wasn’t called. NBC News has said that Andrea Mitchell—whom Wilson identified as one of the reporters who called him to discuss the story—was not told about Plame until after Novak’s column was published. And Newsday’s Knut Royce and Timothy Phelps, who published more details about Plume after Novak’s column, attributed their information to a “senior intelligence official,” not a White House official. (Despite this, Novak claimed in his Wednesday column, “The published report that somebody in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue.” How does he know the calls to the six reporters didn’t happen? Does he know something about the Washington Post story that the rest of us don’t? If so, why is he sitting on this scoop?)

Liberals might think that Novak would be a logical choice for the administration to call. He’s well-connected in Washington, especially in conservative circles, and he frequently dishes out scooplets in his column by skillfully plying his sources (or perhaps it’s by them skillfully plying him—in his memoir, The Triumph of Politics, former Reagan budget director David Stockman referred to Novak and his late column-writing partner, Rowland Evans, as his “bulletin board”). As USA Today reported today, “Many read his columns as windows into the thinking of the conservative establishment in Washington.”

But with regard to the war in Iraq, Novak is wildly out of step with the ambitions of the Bush administration and the neoconservative project generally. On foreign policy, Novak’s views are closer to the establishment of the Reform Party than the Republican Party. He told Playboy in 2000, on the subject of Pat Buchanan, “I like his views on noninterventionism. I agree with his feelings about interventionism in Kosovo and around the world—that we shouldn’t do it.” During the run-up to the first Iraq war in 1991, Novak declared that the war would hurt the economy and implied that it might lead to a depression. Before Clinton’s invasion of Haiti in 1994, Novak suggested that Haitians were raiding the morgue for dead bodies and planting them in the streets to create the illusion of a human rights crisis for international observers. Less than a week after 9/11, Novak wrote that bombing Afghanistan “may be neither effective nor desirable” and could cost the United States the “global support and sympathy now professed all over the world.” He’s been equally critical of the second Iraq war.

Novak is as entitled to anti-war sentiment as any liberal Democrat (or any devout Catholic, the faith to which Novak converted in 1998). The point is that it wouldn’t make much sense for the Bushies to call one Iraq critic in an effort to get him to tar another one. In fact, neocon David Frum excommunicated Novak from the Conintern in the pages of the April National Review in an article titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives: A war against America.” The leakers were surely looking for a reliably pro-war bulletin board, not a Buchananite one, and Novak’s July column on Wilson’s Niger investigation justified the leakers’ decision to not call him with their information. To the extent that Novak’s point can be ascertained from the article, it’s not one that discredits Wilson or his investigation. Novak concludes that “the story, actually, is whether the administration deliberately ignored Wilson’s advice …”

The rally-round-the-president crowd, by contrast, insists that the real story of Wilson’s Niger investigation and the Plame Affair is the alleged incompetence and disloyalty of the CIA. In today’s Los Angeles Times, Max Boot declares, “Unfortunately, this imbroglio is distracting from a genuine and major scandal: the failures of our intelligence agencies.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page linked Wilson’s investigation with “a long-running attempt by anonymous ‘intelligence sources’ quoted in the media to undermine the Bush policy toward Iraq.”

The notion that the CIA perpetually understates the strength of America’s enemies is a central neoconservative article of faith. (And it’s a notion that’s been disputed by Fareed Zakaria, among others. In the June 16 Newsweek,Zakaria wrote: “For decades some conservatives, including many who now wield great influence, have had a tendency to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by tyrannical regimes.”) It dates to at least the 1970s, when Richard Pipes led “Team B,” a group of outside experts thatconcluded that the CIA was understating the military might of the Soviet Union.

The neocon loathing of the CIA might explain what the administration leakers were thinking as they cold-called six journalists and tried to convince them that the fact that Wilson’s wife was CIA was significant or perhaps tried to convince them that it somehow undermined his credibility as an investigator. It’s a rationale that would make more sense than the inscrutable “nepotism” explanation that’s been bandied about by some Plame Affair theorists. And it’s not incompatible with the “revenge” claim of the Post’s anonymous senior administration official or the “silence other CIA whistle-blowers” theory that Wilson has promoted. The fact that several conservatives have trotted out the “don’t trust the CIA” angle as a way to defend against or distract from the administration’s behavior in the Plame Affair lends credence to it as a motivating factor for the leaks. So does Sen. Chuck Hagel’s finger-pointing at Vice President Dick Cheney’s office as a likely source.

If the claims of the Post’s source are true, we shouldn’t have to wait to find out what the leakers told the six journalists. Journalists in the business of reporting information, rather than covering it up, ought to come forward with exactly what they were told. Presumably, that information can be relayed without burning any sources. After all, the journalists were leaked the information precisely because the leakers wanted them to print it. If the Plame Affair Six come forward with their stories, we still won’t know who leaked, but we’ll know a lot more about what was leaked and why.

But my guess is we won’t learn anything more from listening to Robert Novak.