Novak on the Plame leak: a pattern of contradictions


In the two years since CNN contributor and syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak exposed former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative, he has made several contradictory statements with respect to crucial issues in the case. In two instances, Novak's account of events appeared to change in fall 2003 after the Justice Department launched a formal investigation into the leak case. Novak's most recent contradiction, on the other hand, appeared in his August 1 column. In the piece, he broke his longstanding silence on the issue to respond to allegations by ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow in a recent Washington Post article and to defend his "integrity as a journalist."

The nature of the leak

In his original 2003 column, Novak wrote that Plame was a CIA "operative" and that she had "suggested" sending her husband on a 2002 CIA mission to investigate allegations that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium from Niger. Following the column's July 14 publication, Novak gave Newsday reporters Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce an account of how he learned Plame's identity from the "two senior administration officials" he had cited in the column:

Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

On September 28, 2003, the Justice Department launched an official investigation into the leak case. Noting that the story had "reached the front pages of major newspapers," Novak wrote an October 1, 2003, column in which his depiction of the leak conflicted with the account he had provided to Phelps and Royce months earlier. He stressed that the administration official who disclosed Plame's identity had not come to him with the information but, rather, had in an "offhand" way mentioned her role at the CIA in response to questions regarding Wilson's selection for the mission:

During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA's counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger.

In an October 5, 2003, interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Novak further emphasized that the official had mentioned Plame's role at the CIA "offhandedly":

NOVAK: So in interviewing a senior administration official on a number of other subjects, I asked him if he could explain why [Wilson was chosen for the mission], and he said, "Well, his wife works in the counterproliferation section at the CIA" and that she suggested his mission. And it was given to me as an offhand manner and by a person who is, as I wrote in the column, not a partisan gunslinger by any means.


I know when somebody's trying to plant a story. This thing -- this came up almost offhandedly in the course of a very long conversation with a senior official about many things, many things, including ambassador Wilson's report.

Whereas Novak's initial description of the leak depicted the administration sources as offering the information independent of his questioning ("I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. ... They thought it was significant"), his later account suggested that the officials had not planned to bring up Plame's CIA employment and would not have mentioned her occupation if not for his questions. Meet the Press host Tim Russert asked Novak to "explain" the discrepancy between the two quotes. But Novak simply said his earlier statement was not "very artfully put" and insisted that there existed "no inconsistency between those two."

Wilson's qualifications for the CIA mission

In the July 2003 column, Novak clearly laid out Wilson's qualifications for the trip to Niger before disclosing that Plame worked at the CIA and had "suggested" Wilson for the mission:

That's where Joe Wilson came in. His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein's wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed "the stuff of heroism." President George H.W. Bush the next year named him ambassador to Gabon, and President Bill Clinton put him in charge of African affairs at the National Security Council until his retirement in 1998.

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 Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.

But three months after the publication of the column, Novak repeatedly recounted how, after reading Wilson's July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed -- in which Wilson stated that President Bush's claims about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger were "not borne out by the facts as I understood them" -- Novak had grown "curious" about why Wilson had been chosen to investigate the Niger allegations.

From Novak's October 1, 2003, column:

I was curious why a high-ranking official in President Bill Clinton's National Security Council (NSC) was given this assignment. Wilson had become a vocal opponent of President Bush's policies in Iraq after contributing to Al Gore in the last election cycle and John Kerry in this one.

From the October 2, 2003, edition of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports:

NOVAK: On Monday, I began to report on something that I thought was very curious. Why was it that ambassador Wilson, who had no particular experience in weapons of mass destruction, and was a sharp critic of the Iraqi policy of President Bush and, also, had been a high-ranking official in the Clinton White House, who had contributed politically to Democrats -- some Republicans, but mostly Democrats -- why was he being selected?

I asked this question to a senior Bush administration official, and he said that he believed that the assignment was suggested by an employee at the CIA in the counterproliferation office who happened to be ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame.

From the October 5, 2003, edition of NBC's Meet the Press:

NOVAK: I thought it was very strange that the missions in Niger should be done by a diplomat with no experience in counterproliferation, who was regarded as a critic of the war and, really, had no experience at the agency. So in interviewing a senior administration official on a number of other subjects, I asked him if he could explain why.

According to Novak, his curiosity about Wilson's purported lack of experience is what eventually led his administration source to "offhandedly" identify Plame and state that she suggested him for the trip. But Novak's July 2003 column betrayed no doubt or skepticism about Wilson's qualifications. In fact, rather than questioning Wilson's résumé in the piece, he had highlighted it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's conclusions

In a July 15, 2004 column, Novak accurately stated that in its 2004 report on prewar intelligence on Iraq, the Senate Intelligence Committee had not reached an official conclusion that Plame had suggested Wilson for the fact-finding mission to Niger:

Like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark, the most remarkable aspect of last week's Senate Intelligence Committee report is what its Democratic members did not say. They did not dissent from the committee's findings that Iraq apparently asked about buying yellowcake uranium from Niger. They neither agreed to a conclusion that former diplomat Joseph Wilson was suggested for a mission to Niger by his CIA employee wife nor defended his statements to the contrary.

Indeed, the committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), stated in an addendum to the report that committee Democrats had specifically opposed inclusion of an official finding on the subject. Moreover, several newspapers provided further evidence that appeared to support the Senate Democrats' reservations about the validity of the claim.

But in his August 2005 column, Novak contradicted his earlier reporting. He falsely stated that the committee's unanimous report refuted Wilson's denial, concluding that Wilson's wife had "suggested his name for the trip":

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." It cited an internal CIA memo from her saying "my husband has good relations" with officials in Niger and "lots of French contacts," adding they "could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." A State Department analyst told the committee that Mrs. Wilson "had the idea" of sending Wilson to Africa.

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