Novak Speaks on Leak Case–Finally

Novak Speaks on Leak Case–Finally

Robert Novak finally speaks–in a way.

In a column published in newspapers today…


Robert Novak finally speaks–in a way.

In a column published in newspapers today, the conservative columnist finally discloses that he cooperated with the investigation of the CIA leak. Novak, of course, outed Valerie Wilson (aka Valerie Plame) as a CIA officer in a July 14, 2003 column on her husband’s now-infamous CIA-assigned trip to Niger. In disclosing Valerie Wilson’s employment status at the CIA–which was classified information–Novak cited two senior administration sources. After I read the original Novak column, I wondered if these leaks meant that Bush administration officials had violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and wrote the first article that suggested the leaks might be evidence of a White House crime. (That article was posted on The Nation‘s website two days after the Novak column appeared.)

Novak’s latest column answers only a few of the lingering questions. It has long been obvious that he cooperated with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald–otherwise, he would have been subpoenaed by Fitzgerald, as had Judy Miller, Matt Cooper, Tim Russert and Washington Post reporters. The only question was the manner of Novak’s cooperation. In public, he had proclaimed he would not give up his source. So what did he disclose to the investigators?

It turns out that when FBI agents on October 7, 2003, first called on Novak, they already knew who his sources were. They did not need Novak to ID the senior administration officials. And Novak cooperated to an extent. As he writes, “I did disclose how Valerie Wilson’s role was reported to me, but the FBI did not press me to disclose my sources.”

Three months later, he was questioned by Fitzgerald at his lawyer’s office. Fitzgerald arrived wielding waivers signed by Novak’s two sources. Most journalists did not accept such waivers–which were blanket statements signed by Bush administration officials under the threat of dismissal. Novak, too, did not believe these waivers, as he writes, relieved him of his “journalistic responsibility to protect a source.” But since Fitzgerald already knew the identity of his sources (how Fitzgerald knew this Novak does not say), Novak discussed them by name–and avoided being subpoenaed and threatened with jail. He later testified about his sources before the grand jury.

Other reporters later took less accommodating stances. Even after Time magazine turned over emails indicating that Karl Rove had leaked information about Valerie Wilson to correspondent Matt Cooper, Cooper refused to cooperate with Fitzgerald. He only did so after his lawyer had extracted a personal waiver from Rove. Judy Miller went to jail rather than reveal that Scooter Libby had been a source, though Fitzgerald clearly knew Libby had spoken to her.

Novak took a different approach–which kept him out of jail and allowed him to duck a confrontation with Fitzgerald. He did not ask his sources for personal waivers. He confirmed for the prosecutor–even if begrudgingly–who his sources were without obtaining their permission to do so.

The leak case raised plenty of questions about reporter-source confidentiality and what journalists should do to protect sources–and how laws and ethics affect such decisions. Purists argued that reporters should never cooperate and not recognize either blanket or personal waivers. Others–such as reporters who faced jail sentences–advocated a sliding standard of sorts: they would go to prison to defend a confidentiality agreement with a source but would accept a personal waiver to avoid such trouble or to get out of jail. Novak found an even murkier middle ground: he would talk about a source whom the prosecutor had identified without first consenting with that source.

As a journalist who would not fancy doing hard time to protect an administration official, I am reluctant to judge another journalist’s decision on such a matter. But, clearly, Novak’s actions are not likely to win him many First Amendment awards.

Novak’s new column also offers further proof that Karl Rove leaked classified information. This is no news flash. The Libby indictment pointed the finger at Rove. Rove’s own lawyer has confirmed that his client confirmed the Valerie Wilson leak for Novak. And in the summer of 2005, Newsweek disclosed a Matt Cooper email that detailed how Rove had told Cooper that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. (There is no question that Valerie Wilson’s employment status at the CIA was classified. Fitzgerald stated so at a press conference last October.)

Still, despite all this evidence, the Bush White House has not honored the vow made early on in the leak investigation: anyone involved in the leak would be dismissed. Rove still is gainfully employed as George W. Bush’s top strategist at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There are no signs that he has even been disciplined or denied access to classified information. During the investigation, the president refused to say anything publicly about Rove and the probe. And after the investigation, the president has refused to say anything publicly about Rove’s participation in the leak.

Novak’s column is an explanation of how the columnist wiggled out of a legal jam. More important, it is a reminder of how the stonewall strategy mounted by the White House and Rove succeeded.

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