Skip to comments.NYT(All the News That Fits on our Petard): At Leak Inquiry's Center, a Circumspect Columnist (Novak)
Posted on 12/31/2004 6:27:03 AM PST by OESY
In 41 years as a pundit, Robert D. Novak has rarely shied from controversy.
As a syndicated columnist and fixture on cable-news shoutfests, Mr. Novak has opined from the right about some of the biggest stories of his time. He has been a stout cold warrior, a critic of Israeli policies and a passionate defender of military veterans who criticized Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War record.
But now Mr. Novak, 73, finds himself a central figure in perhaps the gravest confrontation between the government and the press in a generation, and he has been uncharacteristically circumspect.
With a federal judge having ordered two reporters to jail for refusing to name their sources to a grand jury investigating the disclosure of a covert C.I.A. officer, Mr. Novak, whose column identifying the officer set off this showdown, has been under increasing pressure in recent weeks to explain his role.
But he determinedly maintains his own counsel. On the C-Span "Washington Journal" this month, he calmly swatted away one caller who asked how it felt to watch others face jail. Then, when queried by Brian Lamb, the program's host, about the matter, he referred dismissively to the reporters, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine.
"I don't know why they're upset with me," Mr. Novak said. "They ought to worry about themselves. I worry about myself."
The confrontation began when Mr. Novak revealed the identity of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame, in his column in July 2003. Mr. Novak's column is not one for grand ideological pronouncements. His stock in trade is whispered inside-the-Beltway tidbits, from an undoubtedly conservative - and sharp - point of view. Outing Ms. Plame, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who had written an Op-Ed article for The Times the week before that was critical of the Bush administration, was a prime one.
Mr. Wilson had written that based on a trip he made to Niger sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency, he thought some intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program that the administration had relied on as a basis to go to war was "twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
Mr. Novak responded in his column: "Wilson never worked for the C.I.A., but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger."
It can be a crime to name a covert C.I.A. officer, and a federal grand jury and a special prosecutor have been pursuing administration officials who may have leaked the information to Mr. Novak. The investigators have also reached into the White House and drawn in other journalists as they seek information about conversations about Ms. Plame.
Although grand jury proceedings are secret, people called before them are free to talk about how they responded to grand jury subpoenas. All five of the other reporters known to be caught up in the investigation have done that. Some testified, with what they said was their sources' blessings. Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper have been held in contempt for refusing to do so.
Mr. Cooper and two colleagues at Time wrote an article questioning the administration's motives for disclosing Ms. Plame's identity. Ms. Miller conducted interviews for a potential article but did not write one.
But, Mr. Novak has not revealed whether he was subpoenaed and if so how he responded. He has said he is staying mum on the advice of counsel. His office declined to make him available for this article and referred questions to his lawyer, James Hamilton, who declined to comment.
Lawyers for other reporters in the investigation say Mr. Novak's role is a mystery. It is inconceivable, they say, that he has not received a subpoena from the independent prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
But they add that none of his possible responses - naming his sources, objecting on First Amendment grounds or asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination - seem to fit any plausible scenario in this case, given Mr. Novak's few cryptic statements. A spokeswoman for Mr. Fitzgerald declined to comment.
A growing number of media ethics specialists, lawyers and journalists are criticizing Mr. Novak as failing as a journalist by not outlining for the public his dealings with the investigation.
"He has become part of the story," said Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "He should disclose what's going on. Everyone else has."
Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a former ombudsman for The Washington Post, added: "He's a journalist. If he believes in reporting and truth-telling, it's time he did some of that."
Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper have said that Mr. Novak is legally entitled to name Ms. Plame. But, in an interview, Mr. Cooper wondered about Mr. Novak's professional courtesy.
"It's bizarre and disappointing that he hasn't said, 'Judy and Matt shouldn't go to jail,' " he said.
Other journalists and legal experts scoff at the idea that Mr. Novak should come forward, and they suggest that some criticism is coming from those on the left who do not like his political leanings.
"What I see is a distaste for what Novak did, for this whole sorry mess, and an antipathy towards the type of journalism he practices and a perception that he practices it on behalf of an administration many people don't like," said Edward Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. "But there's no upside to him talking. There's nothing exculpatory he can say, nothing that he can do to ease the pressure off them."
Representatives of The Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Novak's home paper, and Creators Syndicate, which distributes his column, said they accepted Mr. Novak's statement that his lawyer had told him not to comment. Steve Huntley, editor of The Sun-Times editorial pages, said the calls on Mr. Novak to talk were offensive.
"It's simply wrong, and, to me, reprehensible, that colleagues in our profession would want to bring that kind of pressure on a journalist in his situation," Mr. Huntley said.
Christa Robinson, a spokeswoman for CNN, said Mr. Novak - a co-executive producer of "Capital Gang," CNN's weekly political round table and a co-host of "Crossfire" - had taken questions about the Plame matter on several CNN programs. "Since then," Ms. Robinson said, "he has reiterated to us and to everyone else that there is nothing more he will say to us on advice of counsel."
She added, "It is not his work for CNN that is under scrutiny."
CNN has covered the developments in the inquiry, mentioning in its reports that it began with a column by Mr. Novak, whose connection to CNN is always detailed. Among the programs that have devoted segments to the issues are "Lou Dobbs Tonight,"' "Reliable Sources" and "Newsnight with Aaron Brown." But on Mr. Novak's regular programs, the issue is rarely discussed.
Mr. Novak became a columnist 41 years ago, when after stints at The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, the columnist Rowland Evans Jr. chose him to co-write a political column. Since 1993, Mr. Novak has held the sole byline on the thrice-weekly column, syndicated to more than 300 newspapers.
Although Mr. Novak is a conservative, he does not move in lockstep with the Bush administration. Leading up to the invasion of Iraq, he had been among the most vocal conservatives against the war.
As the Justice Department opened an investigation in the fall of 2003, Mr. Novak wrote a column on Oct. 1 , explaining why he had chosen to name Ms. Plame. He said that he did not receive a planned leak, that the C.I.A. did not warn him that the disclosure would endanger anyone and that "it was not much of a secret." He repeated these comments on several television appearances around the same time.
Since then, he has been largely silent, and he has said nothing about his dealings, if any, with Mr. Fitzgerald, the independent prosecutor. His friends say that the reticence cannot be easy for Mr. Novak but that they are not surprised by it.
Mr. Novak broke his hip the morning after the first presidential debate this fall. Writing from his hospital bed, he refused to let the injury end his column's 41-year unbroken streak.
"If his hip hurts, if he's concerned about the independent prosecutor, it's just not imaginable he would complain about it," said Tucker Carlson, who takes up the banner of the right with Mr. Novak on "Crossfire."
So observers can only speculate about whether Mr. Novak received a subpoena and what he did.
There are three basic possibilities, lawyers say.
He may have talked, but that would run counter to his answer to a student in a speech at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., in October 2003.
As reported by The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Mr. Novak said, "I'm not going to tell them who my original leak was."
"That'd be the end of my career," he added. "If you can't protect your sources, you're finished."
But Mr. Novak has at least once named a confidential source, disclosing in 2001 that Robert P. Hanssen, the former F.B.I. agent convicted of espionage, had been one several years earlier.
If Mr. Novak was subpoenaed and has not talked, he may have objected by citing the limited protection available to reporters wishing to protect their sources under the First Amendment. But there is no reason to think he would have fared any better than Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper. Judge Thomas F. Hogan of Federal District Court in Washington, who is supervising the grand jury, has held both reporters in contempt.
The final possibility is that he has asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. But lawyers involved in the investigation think that is unlikely because they agree he is not at risk of prosecution under the 1982 law that prohibits disclosing the identities of covert officers. The law applies only to people who have authorized access to classified information and to others, like journalists, only if they engage in a pattern of such disclosures.
And in a comment after a speech this month reported in The Capital Times, of Madison, Wis., Mr. Novak said, "To the regret of many people, I am not a criminal target."
IMO it's still a big hullabaloo over nothing.
Just one more phase of the game "Gotcha!" by
Novak's sources provided truthful information that questioned the credibility of a NYT editorial that subsequently turned on misrepresented reportage. Wilson ultimately reported to the 9/11 commission that Iraq was trying to purchase yellowcake from Niger.
Your inability to distinquish truth from fraud is what has earned you such a high profile on the left. Here at FR it makes you a garden variety left wing hack.
BTW, your retirement from the WSJ is long overdue.
Any time someone quotes Geneva Overholser on ethics, I start laughing.
"He has been a stout cold warrior, a critic of Israeli policies and a passionate defender of military veterans who criticized Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War record."
Two out of three, ain't bad.
"he has been uncharacteristically circumspect."
Sounds like a good policy.
Plame game ping!
I know it's a quibble but a "petard" is a bomb, not some kind of spear. "Hoist by his own petard" means 'blown up by his own bomb'.
All this coming from a bunch of inane leftists who have no respect for the dead or their own country.
Using the current tragedy to bash America.
They love leaks that harm this administration. And at first this seemed made to order to fit their agenda.
However, it has come to pass that NYSlimes reporters are being threatened with jail, and now it's not so amusing after all!!!!!
That's because Mr. Novak is a conservative Democrat, gentlemen.
Since the grand jury operates in secret, we do not know precisely what possible crime(s) it may be investigating. Piecing together the actual intent and targets of a grand jury investigation from the statements of some of the witnesses is at best a hit-or-miss proposition (remember the lies that Sid "Vicious" Blumenthal told about his experiences inside the Monicagate 'Starr Chamber'?) It is not out of the question that the law that everybody is assuming may have been broken (the one regarding intentional disclosure of an agent's identity), may in fact not have been broken, and instead the grand jury's focus is directed elsewhere.
For example, wouldn't it be a hoot if the grand jury were investigating a conspiracy by Wilson and others (such as the NYT) to subvert the work of the CIA and to threaten national security by mounting those false, vicious, and malicious attacks against the administration? I am not talking about freedom of the press issues here. Instead, the possibility of a well-orchestrated and financed plot to undermine the government, maybe even with foreign sources of cash in plain brown wrappers passed under the table. Can't you just smell the oil-for-food money link here?
Rather than seeing Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs, wouldn't it be great to see Joe Wilson's mug shot plastered on the front pages? And wouldn't it cause the angry left's heads to explode in a collective fit of apoplexy?
Let's see if I have this straight. Robert Novak should name his sources because he's a dirty conservative, but left-wing reporters should NOT name their sources, because they serve the Good Cause?
Is that the distinction these writers are trying to get at?
Actually, it's a "hullabaloo" over a very important point, but not the conventional wisdom take (and that has been obvious to me since practically the start). It's the CIA rogues undermining of America and the "reporters'" role in that which is being investigated. Novak has not participated in that except to expose a part of it. Cooper has (along with other reporters) participated in it. Miller is a witness with pertinent information to the investigation. That's my theory.
Thanks for the ping!
For example, wouldn't it be a hoot if the grand jury were investigating a conspiracy by Wilson and others (such as the NYT) to subvert the work of the CIA and to threaten national security by mounting those false, vicious, and malicious attacks against the administration?
Exactly. That has been my theory since the start.
BTW, to buttress our theory, note the "Sexed up Dossier" charge was being rolled out in England against Blair via the media and "leaks" at the very same time the Wilson forces started planting their story over here (and also the BBC carried Wilson stories quoting an anonymous "CIA official" who just happened to tell the reporter the Wilson version. That would be the version that was a flat out lie against the Bush administration).
It was a two-pronged charge "Bush lied", "Blair sexed up". Hardly a coincidence, IMO.
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