Right-wing columnist Robert Novak has played a complex game in advancing the Bush administration’s “Plame-gate” cover-up. Novak was the one who first published the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame; he then answered a few questions before going silent; now, he is making a series of misleading arguments via his columns.

Novak’s deceptions and the complicity of major news organization that publish his column without demanding clarifications may be unprecedented in the history of U.S. journalism. Theoretically at least, news organizations are expected to ferret out government wrongdoing, not act as accomplices in the crime and then abettors of the cover-up.

Yet pieced together, Novak’s hedged disclosures and other evidence, including facts from the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, shed light on the dark underbelly of this extraordinary scandal, albeit sometimes unintentionally.

Indeed, Novak’s various accounts – when laid one over the other – suggest that the administration conspiracy to “out” Plame was more widespread than is generally accepted in the media circles of Washington.

In particular, the conventional wisdom – that Novak’s primary source, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, was operating on his own when he first told Novak about Plame’s CIA identity – is shattered, if Novak’s earliest account is to be believed rather than his later revised version.

In July 2003, just days after publishing the column blowing Plame’s cover, Novak told Newsday reporters that he was doing the Bush administration’s bidding when he divulged Plame’s CIA identity. “I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,” Novak said. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name.” [Newsday, July 22, 2003]

So, in real time, Novak’s impression was that he was fed the leak by Bush administration officials because they wanted it out. Though the public didn’t know the identity of the leakers at that time, the Libby investigation established Novak’s sources as Armitage and White House political adviser Karl Rove.

Armitage-Rove Connection

A well-placed conservative source, who worked directly with both Armitage and Rove, told me that the two men had become close allies within the Bush administration, having developed a relationship when Rove was coordinating with Armitage to recruit Colin Powell to support Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then serve as Secretary of State.

The source said Rove and Armitage created a confidential back channel between the White House and the State Department for sensitive information.

Further buttressing the idea that Armitage was part of the Plame leak operation – not just some loose-lipped gossip – is the fact that Novak knew to call Rove when seeking a second source. If Novak really wanted to tell the full story now, he would explain why he thought a White House political adviser would know such a sensitive secret.

The way this works in the real world of journalism is that Novak would have asked Armitage who else might know about Plame’s identity and Armitage would have pointed Novak to Rove. Otherwise, Novak likely would have sought a second source elsewhere – at the CIA, the State Department or possibly the National Security Council staff.

Normally the identity of a covert CIA officer, especially one working under risky “non-official cover” as Plame was, would be shared with only a small number of national security officials with a strict need to know. So, a reporter would not have even wasted a phone call to a political adviser unless someone, presumably Armitage, suggested it.

“They gave me the name,” Novak told Newsday, referring to Armitage and Rove.

Three years later, in a September 2006 column, Novak also revealed how peculiar the original overture from Armitage had been.

“During his quarter of a century in Washington, I had had no contact with Armitage before our fateful interview,” Novak wrote. “I tried to see him in the first 2½ years of the Bush administration, but he rebuffed me – summarily and with disdain, I thought. Then, without explanation, in June 2003, Armitage’s office said the deputy secretary would see me.”

Novak dated the call from Armitage’s office at about two weeks before Plame's husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, went public on July 6, 2003, with his article debunking Bush’s claim about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa. That would put the date of the call at around June 23, which was precisely the time when other Bush administration officials began reaching out to friendly journalists with the information on Plame’s identity.

On June 23, 2003, Libby briefed New York Times reporter Judith Miller about Wilson and may have passed on the tip about Wilson’s wife working at the CIA at that time, according to a later Times chronology. By then, the White House knew that Wilson was talking to other reporters about the falsity of Bush’s uranium claims.

In a Times op-ed on July 6, the ex-ambassador attached his name directly to his charges of manipulated intelligence. Wilson’s article was entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” in which he described his mission to Niger in 2002 and charged that the White House had “twisted” intelligence to invade Iraq.

Angry Vice President

As Cheney read Wilson’s article, a perturbed vice president scribbled in the margins the questions he wanted pursued. “Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”

Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his questions indicated that he was well aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s assignment to check out the Niger suspicions.

That same eventful day – July 6, 2003 – Armitage called Carl Ford, the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, at home and asked him to send a copy of a classified memo about Wilson and his wife to Secretary of State Powell.

The next day, July 7, Libby took the unusual step of inviting White House press secretary Ari Fleischer out to lunch. There, Libby told Fleischer that Wilson’s wife worked in the CIA’s counter-proliferation division which had sent Wilson on his mission to Africa.

Libby “added that this was something hush-hush or on the QT, that not many people knew this information,” Fleischer later testified.

Giving this sensitive information to a press secretary suggested that Libby was looking for ways to disseminate the news to the media. Fleischer then joined the president on a five-day state visit to African capitals during which Fleischer said he briefed at least two reporters about Plame’s identity.

Administration officials who stayed behind in Washington stepped up their efforts to counteract Wilson’s op-ed. Libby later testified before a federal grand jury that he was told by Cheney that Bush had approved a plan in which Libby would brief a specific New York Times reporter about portions of a top-secret National Intelligence Estimate relating to the Niger uranium.

On July 8, Libby spoke again with Judy Miller about the NIE and the Wilsons. In a two-hour interview over breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel near the White House, Libby told Miller that Wilson’s wife worked at a CIA unit responsible for weapons intelligence and non-proliferation. Miller wrote down the words “Valerie Flame,” an apparent misspelling of Mrs. Wilson’s maiden name.

That same day, Novak had his previously scheduled interview with Armitage.

On July 14, Novak published his column, citing two unnamed administration sources [Armitage and Rove] outing Plame as a CIA officer and portraying Wilson’s Niger trip as a case of nepotism.

Intelligence Breach

The disclosure of Plame’s identity effectively meant the end of her CIA career and put the lives of her overseas contacts in jeopardy. But the White House counterattack against Wilson had only just begun.

On July 20, 2003, NBC’s correspondent Andrea Mitchell told Wilson that “senior White House sources” had called her to stress “the real story here” was “Wilson and his wife.” The next day, Wilson was told by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says and I quote, ‘Wilson’s wife is fair game.’”

While Novak and other pro-Bush pundits have asserted that there was no underlying crime in exposing Plame’s identity, that does not actually appear to be the case. According to the CIA, Plame was a covert officer and Plame testified under oath before Congress that she was sent on overseas assignments in the previous five years.

The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 prohibits the willful disclosure of covert intelligence officers who have “served” abroad in the past five years. Right-wing operatives, such as lawyer Victoria Toensing, have sought to confuse this issue by substituting verbs such as “reside” or “stationed” abroad when citing the law.

But the actual verb is “served” which does not require an intelligence officer to live abroad, only to have performed official duties abroad.

Though special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has refused to divulge his reasoning for indicting only Libby for garden-variety crimes, such as perjury and obstruction of justice, the prosecutor would be faced with a serious legal dilemma if either Bush or Cheney had authorized the leak of Plame’s classified identity, because they have extraordinary power over state secrets.

Some constitutional scholars consider a president’s authority over government secrets unlimited – and Bush signed an executive order on March 25, 2003, delegating similar powers to Cheney. That order also addresses declassification of secrets, stating:

“In some exceptional cases, … the need to protect such information may be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the information, and in these cases the information should be declassified. When such questions arise, they shall be referred to the agency head or the senior agency official. That official will determine, as an exercise of discretion, whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.”

Bush defenders have argued that the disclosure of Plame’s identity represented a “good leak” because it suggested that Wilson’s critical findings were tainted by the fact that his wife worked in the CIA office that sent him.

While that argument is a stretch – considering the potential dangers from blowing Plame’s cover versus the marginal significance of Plame’s limited connection to Wilson’s trip – it could serve as a legal fig leaf to justify a decision by Bush or Cheney to declassify Plame’s CIA identity and have their subordinates leak it.

Fitzgerald might well have concluded that a battle over the president’s classification powers made a case built around the Intelligence Identities Protection Act impossible, even if other standards of the law were met.

In other words, a Bush-and/or-Cheney blessing of the Plame leak arguably would have protected their subordinates and fit with the administration's overall assertion that the Commander in Chief at “a time of war” has virtually unlimited powers, that he effectively becomes the law.

Muddied Waters

Meanwhile, Novak and the newspapers that publish him continue to spread confusion among their readers.

The Washington Post and these other newspapers never demand that Novak submit to a full interrogation about what he did in blowing Plame’s cover and who put him up to it. Instead, the newspapers let Novak keep muddying the waters with misleading columns.

For instance, Novak’s most recent Plame-gate column on July 4 sanitizes the Armitage angle by leaving out the key fact that the second source for the story was White House political adviser Rove. Novak also whitewashes the fact that Armitage was only one of several administration officials peddling Plame’s identity to the press in June-July 2003.

Nevertheless, even in trying to justify what he and the Bush administration did in destroying Plame and her spy network, Novak occasionally makes unintended admissions.

For instance, in his July 4 column, Novak criticizes Bush for allowing the Justice Department to appoint U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor on Plame-gate in December 2003.

“At that point,” Novak wrote, “Bush lost control of a case that his enemies seized on as a serious threat to his presidency.”

Implicit in that observation is that before Fitzgerald was appointed Bush felt he had this politically dangerous case safely under his control. As a result of Fitzgerald's investigation, the president has been forced to take the cover-up more into the open by commuting Libby's 30-month prison sentence -- and thus removing the incentive for Libby to finally start telling the whole truth.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page