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Washington’s punditocracy is in mourning over the death of right-wing columnist Robert Novak, with many warm remembrances about his out-sized personality and his supposed love of reporting. But Novak often served as a dishonest propagandist and would have been condemned in a healthy journalistic world.
For instance, not only did Novak disclose the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003 – in line with a White House campaign to discredit her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for criticizing the deceptions behind the Iraq invasion – but Novak continued a jihad of lies against Wilson and Plame for the next several years.
In one such attack on March 22, 2007, Novak reprised right-wing myths that had been disseminated about the Plame-gate case to protect the political flanks of President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other participants in the anti-Wilson campaign.
Despite containing a litany of lies, Novak’s column was uncritically published in the Washington Post’s editorial section, which even cribbed from Novak’s disinformation for use in the Post’s own ugly attacks on Wilson, whose principal sin appears to have been that he was the first Washington insider to accuse Bush of having “twisted” the WMD intelligence on Iraq.
The March 22 column stands out as a particularly notable measure of Novak’s dishonesty because it came almost four years after Wilson began challenging Bush’s false claims about Iraq allegedly seeking yellow-cake uranium from Niger. Novak’s article was not some early rendition of a story that wasn’t fully understood; it was a premeditated act of lying in defense of a cover-up.
For one, Novak couldn’t seem to let go of a favorite right-wing myth – that Plame wasn’t a “covert” CIA officer overseeing a sensitive network of spies informing the United States about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
That right-wing lie – insisting that she wasn’t “covert” – was exploded at a March 16, 2007, hearing of the House Oversight Committee when Chairman Henry Waxman, D-California, read a statement approved by CIA Director Michael Hayden referring to Plame’s former status as “covert,” “undercover” and “classified.”
The Hayden-approved statement added that “Ms. Wilson worked on the most sensitive and highly secretive matters handled by the CIA” and dealt with “prevention of development and use of WMD against the United States.”
In the column six days later, Novak reported that Hayden’s statement shocked Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a hard-line Bush loyalist who had chaired the House Intelligence Committee when the Republicans were in control.
According to Novak, Hoekstra called Hayden, who reaffirmed the statement that Plame indeed had been “covert.” But Novak then resumed the right-wing quibbling over whether Plame would qualify as “covert” under the special definition of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.
This legal technicality apparently was so important to the Post’s editors that they headlined Novak’s article, “Was She Covert?” But the column, like an earlier Post Outlook article by right-wing legal expert Victoria Toensing, gummed up how the law actually defines a “covert” agent who qualifies for special legal protection from exposure.
Toensing, who depicted herself as one of the law’s authors, said a “covert” agent must be “stationed” abroad during the previous five years to be covered. In testimony before the House Oversight Committee, she slipped in another definitional word, saying that “the person is supposed to reside outside the United States.”
In his column, Novak reverted back to Toensing’s earlier word “stationed.” However, for all the interest in this legal technicality of whether Plame was “covert” under the narrow provisions of the 1982 law, Novak, Toensing and the Post’s editors shied away from actually quoting from the law.
Covert or not?
There was a reason for this lack of precision and curiosity about how “covert” is defined. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 makes it a crime to willfully disclose the identity of a U.S. intelligence officer if the identity is classified and the person “has within the last five years served outside the United States.”
The verb is “served” – not “stationed” or “resided” – a modest but significant difference that would appear to alter the determination of whether the law would apply to someone like Plame, who was based in the United States but who testified that she had undertaken covert missions abroad in the previous five years.
Under the Toensing-Novak language, it presumably would be okay to divulge the covert identity of a Special Forces soldier who was “stationed” at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and who “resided” in Fayetteville but risked his life by conducting clandestine counter-terrorism missions in the Middle East.
The decision to insert a different word in the law’s definition is what lawyers would call “probative” in assessing whether Toensing and Novak were intentionally lying.
And beyond playing games with definitions, Novak, Toensing and the Post editors also obscured the larger issue of the damage done by blowing a CIA agent’s cover – and putting in jeopardy the lives of people who have supplied information to the CIA and who clearly do live overseas.
Novak had been caught lying about Wilson/Plame before. For instance, in an Aug. 1, 2005, column also published in the Post, Novak claimed that “the Senate [intelligence] committee reported that much of what he [Wilson] said ‘had no basis in fact.’”
However, the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2004 – although then controlled by the Republicans – did not conclude that Wilson’s statements about Iraqi intelligence “had no basis in fact.” That was a phrase that Novak culled from the “additional views” of three right-wing Republican senators – Pat Roberts, Orrin Hatch and Christopher Bond.
The full committee had refused to accept that opinion from Roberts, Bond and Hatch – yet Novak left the false impression that the phrase was part of what he called “a unanimous Senate intelligence committee report.”
Novak’s misleading claim proved so appealing that Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt adopted the falsehood as one of his own. In a March 7, 2007, editorial, the Post trashed Wilson for his statements about Bush’s “twisted” WMD intelligence, asserting that “a bipartisan investigation by the Senate intelligence committee subsequently established that all of these claims were false.”
Work at headquarters
In the March 22 column, Novak also resurrected other silly arguments that had circulated widely on the Right, such as the assumption that if CIA employees work at headquarters in Langley, Virginia, they must be public, not covert.
As Post editors and Novak certainly knew, many CIA employees who work at Langley and at other CIA facilities around Washington are still covert. It was ludicrous – if not highly offensive – for the Post to run Novak’s rhetorical question: “How could she be covert if, in public view, she drove to work each day at Langley?”
Novak added other questions that he felt should have been addressed at Waxman’s hearing, such as “What about testimony to the FBI that her CIA employment was common knowledge in Washington?”
But Novak didn’t bother to identify who gave that testimony or whether it was part of the self-interested defense from Bush administration officials like Cheney’s aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice regarding the Plame leak.
Libby, for instance, claimed that he had learned of Plame’s CIA identity from NBC bureau chief Tim Russert, an assertion that Russert testified was false.
Novak revived other canards about Wilson that had long since been debunked. Novak wrote that “claims of a White House plot [to punish Wilson by exposing his wife] became so discredited that Wilson was cut out of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign by the summer of 2004.”
What Novak was doing there was recycling a baseless report from Talon News’ former White House correspondent Jeff Gannon, whose real name was James Guckert. On July 27, 2004, Gannon/Guckert reported that Wilson “has apparently been jettisoned from the Kerry campaign.”
The article based its assumption on the fact that “all traces” of Wilson “had disappeared from the Kerry Web site.” The article reported that “Wilson had appeared on a website www.restorehonesty.com where he restated his criticism of the Bush administration. The link now goes directly to the main page of www.johnkerry.com and no reference to Wilson can be found on the entire site.”
That was the extent of Gannon/Guckert’s “proof.”
But Peter Daou, who headed the Kerry campaign’s online rapid response, told me that the disappearance of Wilson’s link – along with many other Web pages – resulted from a redesign of Kerry’s Web site at the start of the general election campaign, not a repudiation of Wilson.
“I wasn’t aware of any directive from senior Kerry staff to ‘discard’ Joe Wilson or do anything to Joe Wilson for that matter,” said Daou. “It just got lost in the redesign of the Web site, as did dozens and dozens of other pages.”
A GOP plant
Gannon/Guckert, who wrote frequently about the Wilson-Plame case in 2003-2004, came under suspicion as a covert Republican operative in January 2005 when he put a question to Bush at a presidential news conference that contained a false assertion about Democrats. That prompted concerns that Gannon/Guckert was a plant.
Later, liberal Web sites discovered that Gannon was a pseudonym for Guckert, who had posted nude photos of himself on gay-male escort sites. It also turned out that Talon News was owned by GOPUSA, whose president, Robert Eberle, was a prominent Texas Republican activist.
As a controversy built over the Bush administration paying for favorable news stories, Gannon/Guckert resigned from Talon News and its website effectively shut down. But his spurious claim about Wilson getting booted by Kerry’s campaign was reprised in 2007 by Robert Novak.
Novak finished that column by spinning new conspiracy theories implicating Democrats and suggesting that CIA Director Hayden deserved White House retaliation.
Hayden’s approval of Waxman’s statement about Plame’s covert status “confirmed Republican suspicions that Hayden is too close to Democrats,” Novak wrote. “When Hayden’s role was pointed out to one of the President’s most important aides, there was no response.”
Novak had moved from acting as a Bush propagandist attacking an Iraq War critic to serving as an instigator for reprisals against a public official who wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Bush.
So, as the Washington pundit class goes into mourning this week over the death of a beloved colleague, it might be worth remembering who Robert Novak really was – and what the weepy eulogies say about the Washington media’s disdain for real truth-telling.
This article originally published at Consortium News.
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