Fighting Words

The End of the Affair

Novak exonerates the Bushies in the Plame case.

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Robert Novak

Robert Novak’s July 12 column and his appearance on Meet the Press Sunday night have dissolved any remaining doubt about the mad theory that the Bush administration “outed” Ms. Valerie Plame as revenge for her husband’s refusal to confirm the report by British intelligence that Iraqi officials had visited Niger in search of uranium. To summarize, we now know that:

1. Novak was never approached by any administration officials but approached them instead.2. He was never told the name Plame but discovered it from Who’s Who in America, which contained it in Joseph Wilson’s entry.3. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had all along known which sources had responded to Novak’s questions.

When one thinks of the oceans of ink and acres of paper that have been wasted on this mother of all nonstories, one wants to weep for the journalistic profession as well as for the trees. Well before Novak felt able to go public, he had said that his original source was not “a partisan gunslinger,” which by any reasonable definition means that he was consciously excluding the names of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. And how likely was it anyway that either man, seeking to revenge himself on Joseph Wilson, would go to a columnist who is known to be one of Wilson’s admirers (praise for him and his career was a central theme in the original 2003 article), is friendly with the CIA, and is furthermore known as a staunch and consistent foe of the administration’s intervention in Iraq? The whole concept was nonsense on its face.

As Novak says, the original question was: How did a man publicly critical of the Bush policy get the CIA’s nomination for a mission to Niger? When he asked this question of his first source, he was told in effect, “That’s easy. His wife works there and recommended him for the trip.” This has since been confirmed by the report of the Senate intelligence committee, which quotes a memo from Valerie Plame making the recommendation in so many words (on the bizarre grounds that Wilson already enjoyed warm relations with the people he would supposedly be investigating at the Niger Ministry of Mines). It seems to me that Novak was well within his rights to check with Karl Rove and with the CIA that this was indeed the case, and to take down his copy of Who’s Who in America from the shelf. As he puts it, “I considered his wife’s role in initiating Wilson’s mission … to be a previously undisclosed part of an important news story.”     

I have heard a few desperate individuals arguing that we have only Novak’s word for all this, and I am not myself numbered among his most ardent admirers, but it is plainly out of the question that after almost two and a half years of being subpoenaed, and questioned by the FBI, and testifying under oath to a grand jury, and having only recently been advised by Patrick Fitzgerald that he is no longer a subject of investigation, Novak would perjure himself in print or on television. This leaves only one unresolved question, which is whether or not CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, when contacted by Novak, confirmed Plame’s name but beseeched Novak not to use it. This is a bit better than Novak’s word against Harlow’s. Novak broke his silence while still under investigation to deny Harlow’s claim—a rash step to take while he could still have been caught giving misleading evidence. His past role as a right-wing defender of the agency against whistle-blowers also makes it highly improbable that he would have exposed any employee to danger. Whereas Harlow, with a collapsing and discredited bureaucracy to defend, has every motive to remember admonishing Novak much more firmly than he actually did. (Come to think of it again, what was the CIA thinking of, sending a partisan amateur to investigate his own friends at the suggestion of his wife?)

No reporter or lawyer concerned with the case believes that Novak’s original source was any other than Richard Armitage. I have heard it lamely said that, if true, this would “undercut” the idea that Wilson and Plame were targets of an administration vendetta. No. it wouldn’t “undercut” the idea. It would annihilate it. Mr. Armitage exceeds even his own former boss and current best friend Colin Powell in visceral hatred of the neoconservatives. In that sense, and in his collusion with Bob Woodward on the story of the origins of the war, he actually is a “partisan gunslinger”—but on the Wilson side of the argument. However, in the present instance, that would only lend credence to Novak’s testimony that the “disclosure”—if it was a disclosure and not just a confirmation of something well-known—was inadvertent.     

So, after almost three years and an exhaustive investigation by a fairly serious and renowned prosecutor involving the jailing of a distinguished reporter, it has been concluded that there was never any breach of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act to begin with. One official at the White House has allegedly been caught in a secondary or even tertiary conflict of evidence. And the hapless Wilsons have been obliged to file their own civil suit, as if the “discovery” it might afford will surpass what Fitzgerald, armed with a quiver of subpoenas and waivers, has been able to accomplish. Meanwhile, the evidence continues to mount (see my Slate columns on the Zahawie case: here, here, and here) that the original British intelligence on the Niger connection was genuine, and that Wilson missed it. And I have some more material on that, which I shall be sharing with you soon.

Correction and apology: In my column last week I sloppily referred to Judith Miller as having been “let go” by the New York Times. I know that this is often a euphemism for being fired, but I actually intended it in its unironic sense. Ms. Miller resigned a month after leaving jail, with some apologetic words from Bill Keller and what I understand was a handsome severance payment. I regret and disown any suggestion that she was dismissed.