Chris Matthews, Fred Barnes, and The New York Times uncritically repeated Bob Novak's claim that the Bush administration official who originally disclosed former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to Novak did so inadvertently. In fact, Novak has been inconsistent on the question of the motivations of his sources, and administration officials had reportedly disclosed Plame's CIA employment to other reporters even before Novak received the information from his primary source, suggesting not inadvertent disclosures but, rather, a concerted effort to get the information out.
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In response to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak's July 12 column on his own role in the CIA leak case, MSNBC host Chris Matthews uncritically repeated the claim made in the column that the Bush administration official who originally disclosed former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to Novak did so inadvertently. Matthews asserted that the purportedly "innocent" nature of the disclosure "relieves some suspicions" regarding the case, including the theory that "all the people around the vice president's office and [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove were involved in an effort to smear" both Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a vocal opponent of the Iraq war. But Matthews's conclusion betrays either ignorance of -- or willful disregard for -- some basic facts. First, Novak himself has by no means been consistent on the question of the motivations of his sources. Far from describing the disclosure as inadvertent, Novak told Newsday shortly after the publication of his July 2003 column naming Plame that his sources thought Plame's identity "was significant" and that "they gave me the name and I used it." Only later did Novak characterize the leak as inadvertent. Second, even before Novak received the information from his primary source, administration officials had reportedly disclosed Plame's CIA employment to other reporters -- a fact that would seem to undermine Matthews's claim that Novak's account "relieves some suspicions" surrounding whether the White House made a concerted effort to discredit Wilson.
Novak's column -- headlined "My role in Plame leak probe" -- appeared on the website Human Events Online on July 11 and in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 12. In the piece, Novak shed more light on his cooperation with the special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald over the course of the CIA leak investigation, which began after Novak revealed Plame's CIA identity in a July 14, 2003, column. Novak affirmed in the new column that both Rove and then-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow had backed up the fact that Plame worked at the CIA, but he did not disclose the identity of his primary source for the information, writing that this official has "not come forward to identify himself." Novak did, however, repeat his prior claim that the original leak had been "inadvertent":
In my sworn testimony, I said what I have contended in my columns and on television: Joe Wilson's wife's role in instituting her husband's mission was revealed to me in the middle of a long interview with an official who I have previously said was not a political gunslinger. After the federal investigation was announced, he told me through a third party that the disclosure was inadvertent on his part.
In an appearance on the July 11 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Matthews not only repeated Novak's claim that the primary source had leaked the information inadvertently, but attached great significance to this point. "I think it relieves some of the suspicions here," Matthews said. "One suspicion was, of course, that all the people around the vice president's office and Karl Rove were involved in an effort to smear" both Plame and Wilson" and "to basically debunk" Wilson's July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed -- in which Wilson cast doubt over President Bush's claims about Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger. Matthews went on to say, "So it could be that this entire investigation ... may have started with an innocent revelation to Bob Novak about the identity of Joe Wilson's wife."
But in describing the disclosure as "inadvertent" and "innocent," Matthews ignored entirely the questions regarding Novak's original account of the leak, which appears to contradict subsequent characterizations. As Media Matters for America noted, in a July 22, 2003, article by Newsday reporters Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce, Novak was quoted saying that his sources leaked Plame's CIA because "[t]hey thought it was significant":
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."
After the Justice Department launched an official investigation into the leak case in September 2003, Novak wrote an October 1, 2003, column which included a description of the leak that conflicted with the account he had offered Phelps and Royce months earlier. In the column, he emphasized that his primary source had not come to him with the information, but instead had mentioned Plame's role at the CIA in an "offhand" way. In an October 5, 2003, interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Novak again claimed that his original source had mentioned Plame's role at the CIA "offhandedly." When asked by host Tim Russert to "explain" the discrepancy between the two quotes, Novak said his earlier statement was not "very artfully put" and insisted that there existed "no inconsistency between those two."
In a July 12 article, New York Times reporter David Johnston also uncritically reported Novak's claim that the original leak was "inadvertent." Further, on the July 11 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes pointed to Novak's claim of an "inadvertent comment" as evidence that "there was no leak" and, therefore, "[t]here was not a political offensive" against Wilson and Plame.
But Matthews's and Barnes's suggestion that the purportedly "inadvertent" and "innocent" nature of the leak puts to rest the broader questions regarding the White House's conduct assumes that Novak's primary source was the only official to disclose Plame's identity to reporters, and that the official did it only one time. In fact, there is ample evidence that multiple administration officials disclosed her CIA employment to reporters multiple times -- something unlikely to have been "inadvertent." Indeed, it is known that an unnamed administration official informed Washington Post staff writer Bob Woodward in mid-June 2003 that Plame worked at the CIA. According to the indictment Fitzgerald filed against former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in October 2005, Libby discussed Plame's CIA employment with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on two occasions prior to Novak's column -- on June 23 and July 8. Further, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper claimed that Rove disclosed her CIA identity to him on July 11. And an unnamed administration official reportedly leaked the information to Post staff writer Walter Pincus on June 12. It was this pattern, among other things, that led Fitzgerald to assert the existence of a "concerted action" by "multiple people in the White House" to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson.
From the July 11 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country:
SCARBOROUGH: Now, conservative commentators are already trumpeting Novak's claim that the leak was inadvertent and accidental. But, friends, there is no doubt that your opinion on this issue is likely to be tied to whether you voted for, or against, George W. Bush in the 2004 election, unless, of course, that's -- unless you're like me. And maybe I'm cynical or perhaps it's because I worked in Congress for years, but you know what? I always found that leaks of this size were rarely mistakes. Regardless of what the writer -- or the right-wing people may tell you, I can assure you that if you assign selfish motives to leakers, you will rarely be proven wrong. So, does the Novak bombshell hurt or help the president, and will it lead to any more criminal charges? MSNBC's Hardball's Chris Matthews broke the big news tonight. Chris, how is this story developing right now?
MATTHEWS: It's very hard to see how this is going to break. Clearly, we have a much better view of it. It's almost like the old Polaroid film, slowly developing on a picture here. We have a picture now of at least two of the three people who spoke with Bob Novak before he wrote that column outing the identity of Valerie Wilson, the CIA agent. We know that Karl Rove spoke to him in a kind of a supportive role. We know that Bill Harlow, who was spokesman for the CIA, had a conversation with him which helped him, according to Bob Novak, build the story and confirm it. What we don't have officially right now is the initial source, the person who, according to Novak, in an inadvertent comment, gave him the information about Valerie Wilson being at the CIA.
SCARBOROUGH: And, of course, the question is: Do Novak's revelations make the White House's activities look illegal? Legal? Does it make it look like a political hit job? Any indication, from what you've read from Novak, on whether this will help or hurt the White House in that regard?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, I think -- I think, I think it doesn't hurt. I think it relieves some of the suspicions here. One suspicion was, of course, that all the people around the vice president's office and Karl Rove were involved in an effort to smear Valerie Wilson, to smear her husband and to basically debunk his testimony to The New York Times, the article he wrote that there was, in fact, a cover-up of the failure to really find any evidence of a weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear weapon, in the hands of Saddam Hussein, which was big news. Now, what seems to be coming out as the developing story here is that Richard Armitage -- and he seems to be the number one suspect right now -- as the original source for Bob Novak's column. Armitage is not a hawk. Armitage is a moderate within this administration. He was deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, a fellow moderate, if you will. Certainly, none of the neoconservative zealotry of the other people we often hear of in this administration. Certainly, no evidence he did this on purpose.
So it could be that this entire investigation, with all its expenses and all the news value it's had -- and it certainly has it -- has a lot of news value, in terms of the people involved -- may have started with an innocent revelation to Bob Novak about the identity of Joe Wilson's wife.
SCARBOROUGH: I wanted to ask you that, though. I mean, what's your gut? You've been in Washington so long and been among all the power players on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Do you buy that explanation that it was an inadvertent mistake, that somebody was just having a long interview with Bob Novak and then just let slip the secret identity of a CIA agent?
MATTHEWS: What I know firsthand is that when Joe Wilson blew the whistle and said that the evidence of WMD, of a nuclear program by Saddam Hussein, based upon the evidence presented by the president that there was, in fact, a British intelligence report that Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium yellowcake from the government of Niger -- when he came out and said that that was not the case, there was no smoking gun or any evidence there'd be a mushroom cloud because of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs -- I believe that the White House did go into action. I believe they tried to turn the reporters off this story.
SCARBOROUGH: So, Chris, what do you make of a spokesman for the CIA telling a reporter the identity of a CIA agent?
MATTHEWS: Oh, I'm not sure we have any reason to get that far. What we do know is the question of how a reporter develops a story. When you go out and you get a pretty good story -- and perhaps it came from Richard Armitage, the secretary -- deputy secretary of state -- about Valerie Plame's identity, that's a pretty hefty bit of information. You figure why would Armitage accidentally tell you, inadvertently tell you this? He's probably telling the truth. Then, if you're a reporter like Bob Novak, you work your sources. He calls up Karl Rove, the president's top political kick, and say, did you hear about that she was really the one that put this guy on the trip? It was really kind of a boondoggle. It wasn't really legitimate. You guys look pretty good on this, blah, blah, blah. And Bob Novak says, "Oh, so you heard."
From the July 11 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
BARNES: There was not a political offensive, and I trust Bob Novak totally, not just generally speaking, by the way. Look, what this shows is what Bob Novak was said publicly all along there was no leak. There was an inadvertent comment, and he believes it was inadvertent, it was not leaked, which he checked out with -- and which he checked out with other people, and he wrote the column, he got the actual name, as Mara [Liasson, NPR national political correspondent] said, from "Who's Who." This shows, I think, clearly that there was not a conspiracy to harm Joe Wilson at all by revealing his wife's name as a CIA agent.
Now we know there was an effort by the White House to rebut the column he'd written in The New York Times, which, of course, turns out have been wrong on almost every point made by Joe Wilson. But there was no conspiracy to harm him, which, you know, he has claimed, to destroy him or something like that. Only to rebut his --