Novak stonewalls press corps as Times reporter faces jail

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Following a federal judge's announcement that he would send two reporters to jail if they did not agree to disclose their confidential sources to a grand jury, CNN host and syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak refused to answer direct questions from either The New York Times or CNN regarding his involvement in the case, let alone reveal his secret source. But in the past, Novak has been more willing to reveal confidential sources.

The grand jury in question is investigating the leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. In a July 14, 2003, column, Novak revealed that "two [Bush] administration officials" had told him that Plame, "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," had suggested sending her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, to Niger to investigate allegations that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from the West African nation. Plame was working undercover at the time of the column. In investigating the leak, federal special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald subpoenaed Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times, who both allegedly received information about Plame, and the judge issued a contempt order when they refused to testify. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Cooper and Miller's appeal. On June 30, Time announced that it would turn over documents to the prosecutor's office that disclose the identity of Cooper's source, which will presumably result in the judge's lifting the contempt order against Cooper.

Since the federal investigation began, Novak has remained conspicuously silent about his level of cooperation and, despite hundreds of appearances on CNN, has rarely faced direct questions on the topic. In the December 2004 edition of Washington Monthly, Amy Sullivan reported that he has worked to preserve this arrangement:

Colleagues like [CNN host Paul] Begala say that they don't question Novak about the Plame case out of personal loyalty. "Look, he's a friend of mine," Begala said to me. "I know that he can't talk about it. I respect that fact, so I don't bring it up." But there's another reason they don't ask. Novak won't let them. The topic hasn't come up on "The Capital Gang," for instance, because, according to one source at CNN, "Bob is the executive producer and he has more say than anybody else ... He won't talk about it." Novak's role at the show means that he gets to determine what subjects do -- and, more importantly, do not -- get discussed. But couldn't one of the other panelists bring it up, even so? "You have to understand," said the source, "this is Bob's show. He's the boss."

But on the June 29 edition of CNN's Inside Politics, host Ed Henry grilled Novak on the extent of his contact with federal prosecutors, asking at one point, "Why is it that there are two reporters out there who may go to jail, Bob, but it doesn't appear that you are going to go to jail?" In response, Novak said he could not comment on the case and claimed he will "reveal all in a column and on the air" once the case has concluded. "Ed, you don't know anything about the case," Novak stated. "And those people who say that don't know anything about the case. And unfortunately, as somebody who likes to write, I'd like to say a lot about the case, but because of my attorney's advice I can't."

In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Novak again declined to provide additional information regarding his contact with investigators. He asserted that he is not to blame for the fact Miller and Cooper face jail time. Novak reiterated that he will "write a column when the case is closed" and "tell everything I know."

While Novak remains mum, some colleagues have urged him to go public with his story. Indeed, the Henry grilling followed a June 29 New York Times op-ed by former columnist William Safire, who wrote, "Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources -- who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators -- managed to get the prosecutor off his back."

In its June 30 article, The New York Times cited "Gina Lubrano, reader representative for The San Diego Union-Tribune, which publishes Mr. Novak's columns on Sundays, [who] said she found it baffling that someone who demanded answers to tough questions as part of his job could be so reticent when the spotlight turned on him. 'As a journalist, he would find that response unacceptable from others,' Ms. Lubrano said."

On the June 30 edition of Fox News' Dayside with Linda Vester, Marvin Kalb, former NBC News correspondent and current senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said, "[H]e's going to reveal everything after it's over. But after it's over could be with the imprisonment of two reporters -- now maybe just one. Why not, at this point, Mr. Novak, step forward, say what it is that's on your mind and let people know?"

Novak has, in fact, previously been willing to identify sources in what he referred to as "extraordinary circumstances." In 2001, he revealed that he had taken information from Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent found to have spied for the Soviet Union. Novak wrote that he divulged the confidential source "in order to be honest to my readers."

From the June 29 edition of CNN's Inside Politics:

HENRY: Two reporters facing possible jail time are expected to attend a hearing at the top of the hour at U.S. District Court here in Washington. Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times both face possible 18-month sentences for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity. Cooper and Miller asked for today's hearing after the Supreme Court earlier this week refused to hear their appeals.

Columnist and CNN political analyst Bob Novak was the first to reveal the CIA employee's identity, Valerie Plame. And Bob Novak joins me now on the show.

Bob, first, what's your reaction to the Supreme Court saying they would not hear this case?

NOVAK: Well, I deplore the thought of reporters -- I've been a reporter all my life -- going to jail for any period of time for not revealing sources, and there needs to be a federal shield law preventing that as there are shield laws in 49 out of 50 states. But, Ed, I -- my lawyer said I cannot answer any specific questions about this case until it is resolved, which I hope is very soon.

HENRY: In general, though, you believe in the principle of keeping the identity secret of confidential sources. Have you ever revealed the identity of one of your confidential sources?

NOVAK: Well, people know -- who have read my column know there have been special cases where I have. But the question of being coerced to by the government and being put in prison is, I think, something that should be protected by act of Congress.

HENRY: In general, have you cooperated with investigators in this case?

NOVAK: I can't answer any questions about this case at all.

HENRY: Okay. Now, just in general about the principle at stake here -- William Safire, fellow conservative, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying that, at the very least, he believes that you owe your readers, and in this case, your viewers, some explanation. He said, "Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources, who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators, managed to get the prosecutor off his back."

I think that's the question. Why is it that there are two reporters out there who may go to jail, Bob, but it doesn't appear that you are going to go to jail?

NOVAK: Well, that's what I can't reveal until this case is finished. I hope it is finished soon. And when it does, I agree with Mr. Safire, I will reveal all in a column and on the air.

HENRY: Do you understand why in general there's frustration among fellow journalists after 41 years of distinguished work, where you've always pushed and been a fierce advocate of the public right to know, you're not letting the public know about such a critical case, and two people may go to jail.

NOVAK: Well, they are not going to jail because of me. Whether I -- whether I answer your questions or not, it has nothing to do with that. That's very ridiculous to think that I am the cause of their going to jail. I don't think they should be going to jail, though.

HENRY: Yes. But I didn't say you were the cause. But there are some people --

NOVAK: Yes, you did.

HENRY: No, but some people feel if you would come forward with the information that you have, that maybe they would not go to jail.

NOVAK: But you don't know -- Ed, you don't know anything about the case. And those people who say that don't know anything about the case. And unfortunately, as somebody who likes to write, I'd like to say a lot about the case, but because of my attorney's advice I can't. But I will. And there might be some surprising things.

HENRY: We'll all be waiting to hear that story finally told, Bob.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Intelligence, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
CIA Leak Investigation
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.