Why Novak’s Defense Doesn’t Cut It

Last week, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told the Washington Post that he had cautioned Robert Novak about some claims in the July 2003 column that outed CIA operative Valerie Plame:

[Harlow] said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson’s wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.

Today, Novak responded with an emotional defense of his initial column:

[Harlow’s remarks] gave the impression I ignored an official’s statement that I had the facts wrong but wrote it anyway for the sake of publishing the story. … The truth is otherwise, and that is why I feel compelled to write this column. …

There never was any question of me talking about Mrs. Wilson “authorizing.” I was told she “suggested” the mission, and that is what I asked Harlow. His denial was contradicted in July 2004 by a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee report. The report said Wilson’s wife “suggested his name for the trip.”

Now, remember what Novak wrote about Plame’s role in Joseph Wilson’s trip back in ’03. Pay particular attention to the vague second sentence, from which two very different meanings can be gleaned:

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA (Harlow) says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

The sentence could mean:

1) Valerie Wilson initiated the very idea of a mission to Niger, and proposed additionally that her husband be the one to take the trip; or

2) The idea of a trip was not initially conceived by Plame, and that Plame merely suggested her husband as a possible candidate for the trip, a suggestion that more senior agency officials accepted.

Which version did Novak intend to communicate? If it was the first (as most believe), it means that Novak did contradict Bill Harlow, who specifically said that Plame did not “authorize” Wilson’s trip to Niger.

But today, in an attempt to defend his irresponsible ’03 column, Novak says that he actually meant to communicate the second scenario.

Even if this is true, it makes his actions no less damnable. It means that Novak decided to out a CIA operative for what is unquestionably a non-story. After all, the fact that Plame suggested Wilson’s name is basically irrelevant if in fact she had no role in either 1) deciding to launch the Niger trip or 2) choosing who would lead it. When told by the CIA that “exposure of her name might cause ‘difficulties’ if she travels abroad,” any responsible journalist would have treated the matter with far more sensitivity. Novak did not.