Novak wondered why Waxman, others didn't ask about baseless Plame assertions

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In his March 22 column, syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak asserted that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform failed to ask "pertinent questions" in their March 16 hearing investigating the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. Two of Novak's "pertinent questions" hinged on baseless claims suggesting Plame was not a covert operative "when her identity was revealed." (Novak's use of the passive voice obscured the fact that his own July 14, 2003, column disclosed her identity.) Novak also noted that former Reagan administration deputy assistant attorney general Victoria Toensing testified that Plame was not covert under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) "if only because she was not stationed overseas for the CIA the past five years." But the statutory definition does not provide that the operative must have been "stationed" overseas to qualify as covert; rather, the statute uses different tenses of the verb "serv[e]."

Novak argued that Waxman and others should have asked Plame: "How could she be covert if, in public view, she drove to work each day at Langley [the CIA's Virginia headquarters]? ... What about testimony to the FBI that her CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington?"

Novak's suggestion that Plame's "dr[iving] to work each day at Langley" meant she could not be covert echoed a claim he made on the day of Plame's testimony. As Media Matters for America noted, on the March 16 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Novak asserted that "the idea that [Plame] was a covert operator working on covert operations when she was going to the CIA building every day is absurd." On the October 26, 2005, edition of CNN's The Situation Room, former CIA agent Larry Johnson addressed such claims: "People saying that just demonstrate their further ignorance of the CIA. At least 40 percent of the people driving through those gates every day are undercover."

Regarding Novak's claim that there was "testimony to the FBI" that Plame's "CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington," Media Matters has previously debunked several iterations of this rumor (here, here, here, and here). While it is unclear to what specific "testimony" Novak was referring, an October 26, 2005, Los Angeles Times article reported that "neighbors [of Plame's] contacted by The Times said they told the FBI agents that they had no idea of her agency life."

The indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. also stated: "At all relevant times from January 1, 2002 through July 2003, Valerie [Plame] Wilson was employed by the CIA, and her employment status was classified. Prior to July 14, 2003, Valerie Wilson's affiliation with the CIA was not common knowledge outside the intelligence community."

Further, Novak uncritically reported Toensing's claim in her March 16 testimony that Plame "was not a covert operative as defined by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which she [Toensing] had helped draft as a Senate staffer in 1982, if only because she was not stationed overseas for the CIA the past five years." Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) asked Toensing about her previous assertion in a February 18 Washington Post op-ed that "Plame was not covert. She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years." Toensing responded that that being "stationed abroad" was "the same concept as 'serving outside the United States,' " referring to the IIPA's definition of a "covert agent" as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States." Toensing added, "That was the whole concept that we had when we passed the law." However, as Media Matters noted, regardless of Toensing's interpretation, the IIPA does not use the word "stationed," instead defining a "covert agent'' in part as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States" [emphasis added]. Apparently no court has ruled on the question of what constitutes "serving" overseas under the statute.

Moreover, during her March 16 testimony, Plame agreed with Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) that she had been "covert ... [o]n July 13," 2003, and that Novak's "July 14 column destroyed [her] covert position and [her] classified status." Further, she agreed with Cummings that she had "conduct[ed] secret missions overseas ... [d]uring the past five years."

In his March 22 column, Novak also falsely reported that the "White House from the start has treated the Plame leak as a criminal case not to be commented on." In fact, Bush administration officials have occasionally offered details regarding the case:

  • As Media Matters repeatedly noted, then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan, in an October 7, 2003, press briefing, stated that neither Libby nor White House senior adviser Karl Rove were "involved" in outing Plame -- an assertion later proven to be false.
  • As the weblog Think Progress has documented, in an October 18, 2005, press briefing, McClellan stated that "our policy is not to comment on an investigation while it's ongoing," including answering "any question relating to it." But when questioned later in the briefing as to whether Bush and Cheney had been asked to appear before Fitzgerald a second time, McClellan answered that they had not.
  • A November 20, 2005, Associated Press article noted that then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied he was the source who first disclosed Plame's identity to Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward.

From Novak's March 22 column:

Claims of a White House plot became so discredited that Wilson was cut out of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign by the summer of 2004. Last week's hearing attempted to revive a dormant issue. The glamorous Mrs. Wilson was depicted as the victim of White House machinations that aborted her career in intelligence.

Waxman and Democratic colleagues did not ask these pertinent questions: Had not Plame been outed years ago by a Soviet agent? Was she not on an administrative, not operational, track at Langley? How could she be covert if, in public view, she drove to work each day at Langley? What about comments to me by then CIA spokesman Bill Harlow that Plame never would be given another foreign assignment? What about testimony to the FBI that her CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington?

[...]

That decision left the field to such partisan Democrats as Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Diane Watson, Waxman's fellow Californian, mimicked the chairman's inquisitorial style. She repeatedly interrupted lawyer Victoria Toensing, the lone rebuttal witness granted the Republicans by Waxman.

Toensing testified that Plame was not a covert operative as defined by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which she had helped draft as a Senate staffer in 1982, if only because she was not stationed overseas for the CIA the past five years. Waxman hectored Toensing, menacingly warning that her sworn testimony would be scrutinized for misstatements.

Waxman relied on his support from [CIA Director Lt. Gen. Michael] Hayden. When Hayden's role was pointed out to one of the president's most important aides, there was no response. The White House from the start has treated the Plame leak as a criminal case not to be commented on. The Democrats still consider it a political blunderbuss, aimed at Karl Rove and his boss.

Posted In
Government, Cabinet & Agencies, Ethics
Network/Outlet
Creators Syndicate
Person
Robert Novak
Stories/Interests
CIA Leak Investigation
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