Robert Novak’s refusal to admit that he unmasked a covert employee of the Central Intelligence Agency in a July 2003 column seemed bizarre when I wrote about it on March 23. Now, it’s starting to look demented. At a March 16 hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the employee in question, Valerie Plame, stated in no uncertain terms that the fact of her employment at the CIA was classified information when Novak revealed it in his column. (Plame quit the CIA after her name surfaced in print because, she said, the exposure dead-ended her career.) Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said he had it directly from CIA Director Michael Hayden that Plame was “a covert employee of the CIA.” Novak’s response was to sputter that “Hayden is too close to Democrats” and to repeat his longstanding ridiculous position that if Plame really had been covert, then the CIA spokesman Novak called to confirm Plame’s employment wouldn’t merely have asked Novak not to publish her name (which is what that spokesman did) but rather would have said pretty please don’t publish her name, with a cherry on top.
Apparently Novak’s accusation that Hayden was sucking up to the Democrats angered Hayden, who collared Novak about it at the March 31 Gridiron Club dinner. Novak triumphantly extracted from this conversation that Hayden never told Waxman that Plame was “covert.” Rather, Hayden told Novak, he told Waxman that Plame was “undercover.” Novak then obtained Waxman’s draft talking points for the hearing in which the words “undercover agent” were crossed out and “covert employee” penciled in. Hayden subsequently explained to Novak that a CIA lawyer had gone over the draft talking points, and that he, Hayden, had no problem with the change. In his April 12 column about all this, Novak suggested that Bush-hating CIA staffers performed an end run around Hayden to shoehorn the word “covert” into Waxman’s statement, and that Hayden was too embarrassed at being outmaneuvered to admit it. This may be true. Or there may simply be some honest disagreement among CIA lawyers about whether Plame’s status met the legal definition of “covert” under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the statute under which special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald considered prosecuting the White House and State Department officials who leaked Plame’s name to the press. (Click here for a flow chart of the leaks.)
What Novak refuses to grasp is that whatever legal distinction exists between “undercover” and “covert” doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because Fitzgerald decided there were no grounds to prosecute anybody under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. (Instead, Fitzgerald prosecuted Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, for perjury.) What matters is that Plame’s identity as a CIA employee was a secret, dead man’s talk, hush-hush, and on the QT. Novak and his sources in the White House and the State Department exposed that secret. It wasn’t illegal to do so, but it was damaging to Plame’s career and, arguably, damaging to the interests of the United States.
Novak could write, plausibly, that the consequences of this enterprise reporting are not his lookout. Or he could write that he’s sorry he blew Plame’s cover. Or he could write that he didn’t believe when he wrote his first Plame column that Plame’s identity really was secret, but that he’s since come to realize that it was. Instead, Novak has thrown himself down a semantic rabbit hole. It’s a little frightening to watch.