Novak's Meet the Press interview marked by further inaccuracy and obfuscation

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Meet the Press host Tim Russert did little to challenge Bob Novak's misleading statements on some of the key aspects of the Valerie Plame affair. Instead, both focused on the irrelevant issue of whether Novak's sources disclosed her actual name -- which as Novak himself noted, was easily located -- rather than on his sources' motivations in disclosing her identity as a CIA operative.

Appearing on the July 16 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press to discuss his role in the federal investigation into the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, nationally syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak continued his pattern of making false and misleading statements regarding the Plame affair. Host Tim Russert did little to challenge Novak's misleading statements on some of the key aspects of the Plame affair. Instead, both focused on the irrelevant issue of whether Novak's sources disclosed her actual name -- which as Novak himself noted, was easily located -- rather than on his sources' motivations in disclosing her identity as a CIA operative.

In 2002, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV was sent to Niger by the CIA to answer questions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office regarding purported attempts on the part of Iraq to purchase Nigerien yellowcake uranium. Wilson's investigation turned up no evidence that any sale had taken place and found that "it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq." After President Bush referred to Iraq's purported attempt to obtain uranium from Africa in his 2003 State of the Union address as justification for invading Iraq (the now-infamous "16 words"), Wilson detailed the findings of his trip in a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed. Eight days later, in his July 14, 2003, column, Novak identified Plame as "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," and wrote: "Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger." In September 2003, it was reported that the Justice Department had launched an investigation into the public disclosure of Plame's identity. In October 2005, special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the head of the investigation, announced that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's then-chief of staff, had been indicted for perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to the FBI regarding the Plame inquiry. In a July 12 column, Novak purported to reveal his "role in the investigation" after three years of near-silence on the Plame affair. On July 13, Wilson and Plame filed suit against Cheney, Libby, and White House senior adviser Karl Rove, claiming they "embarked on anonymous 'whispering campaign'" that blew Plame's cover as a CIA employee and "was designed to discredit and injure" Wilson and Plame.

Plame's name versus her identity

During the interview, Russert and Novak placed heavy significance on when and where Novak first learned Plame's name. But in the context of the leak investigation, Plame's name is insignificant. The public disclosure of Plame's identity as a CIA employee and the potential damage caused by that disclosure were the basis for the CIA's referral of the matter to the Justice Department to begin with, and the basis for the lawsuit Wilson and Plame filed against Cheney, Libby, and Rove. Media Matters for America found that even at the time Novak wrote his column disclosing her identity, Plame's name could have been obtained through a quick Google search, as it was listed on Wilson's biography on the Corporate & Public Strategy Advisory Group's website in July 2003. Novak himself said that he came across Plame's name simply by checking Wilson's Who's Who in America listing, a fact that he cited in his July 12 column and in subsequent appearances to exculpate his sources -- they didn't actually provide her name -- when by his own account, their intent in identifying Wilson's wife at all was to suggest (falsely, according to the CIA) that by virtue of her job with the CIA , she was in a position to recommend him for the trip to Niger. Whether she went by "Mrs. Wilson" or something else was presumably not relevant to their purported goal of raising questions about Wilson's credibility and qualifications for the assignment. Whether or not her actual name was used was also not relevant to the question of whether outing "Wilson's wife" as a CIA employee compromised the operations of the CIA. Even Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, and attorney Victoria Toensing, a vocal defender and friend of Novak's, have acknowledged that public disclosure of Plame's name had no bearing on whether the leakers had violated the law.

Nonetheless, Novak suggested repeatedly that the issue of whether his sources provided Plame's name was relevant to their culpability in disclosing her identity, and Russert did nothing to counter his assertions. Russert quoted the July 22, 2003, Newsday article in which Novak was quoted saying that his sources thought Plame's identity was "significant" -- a statement that appears to conflict with Novak's later claims that his source disclosed the information in an "offhanded" and "inadvertent" manner. Novak responded not by addressing the apparent inconsistency -- saying that, first, his sources thought Plame's identity was significant and, later, that they disclosed it offhandedly -- but by stating, irrelevantly, that administration officials did not tell him Plame's name: "I was wrong when I said they came to me. ... I mean, when I said that they gave me the name, because I got the name from, from Who's Who in America." By focusing on Plame's name, Novak completely sidestepped the question of whether the disclosure of Plame's identity was deliberate or inadvertent. Russert asked five follow-up questions on the issue of when and where Novak learned her name.

From the July 16 Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Did he [Novak's primary source] give you the -- her name?

NOVAK: No, he did not.

RUSSERT: Now, Newsday interviewed you a few weeks after your column ran, back in 2003, and quotes you as saying this: "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me. They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."

NOVAK: That was a misstatement on my part. I -- I'm -- I've found I'm much better -- I hope I'm not screwing up on this interview because I'm much better interviewing than I am giving interviews. They didn't give me the name. And of course it was not a "they," it was one person, which I later checked out with Mr. Rove. They, they -- the Newsday article also paraphrased me as saying they came to me. I never said they came to me, because obviously I initiated the interview.

RUSSERT: Newsday stands by that story. And you know if a politician said that, which you said, and contrasted it with what you're saying now, people would say, "Wait a minute. Something's wrong here."

NOVAK: Well, I was wrong when I said they came to me.

RUSSERT: You --

NOVAK: I mean, when I said that they gave me the name, because I got the name from -- from Who's Who in America.

[...]

RUSSERT: When you were on Meet the Press October of '03, I asked you about the Newsday piece, and you did repeat, you said, quote, "What I meant was that the senior official had given me her name."

NOVAK: Well, that, that was just -- that's just a misstatement on my part. He -- he -- what he said exactly was his wife, his wife had done it. I got the name -- because I realized I didn't have the name, and I figured out, how am I going to get this name to put in the -- in the column? So I said, "Maybe it's in Who's Who." And I looked it up, and there it was.

RUSSERT: In fact, you wrote, "I learned Valerie Plame's name from Joe Wilson's entry in 'Who's Who in America.' " And here is the Who's Who from 2003: Wilson, Joseph Charles IV, ambassador, married to Valerie Elise Plame August 3, 1998." Was that the very first time you had seen or heard the name Valerie Plame?

NOVAK: Yes.

RUSSERT: No one told you?

NOVAK: No.

RUSSERT: But they did tell you "his wife."

NOVAK: He told me his wife worked in the counterproliferation division of the -- they did not say she was a covert operative, didn't say she was a covered operative. A lot of people say, "Well, why'd you call her an operative in the column?" I call all kinds of politicians operatives. It's maybe a bad habit, I -- but I still do it. I see somebody's running a congressional campaign in Wyoming, I'd call them an operative.

RUSSERT: But having said twice before that you got the name from a senior official --

NOVAK: Oh, a mistake.

RUSSERT: -- you can understand why people are --

NOVAK: I understand, I understand, but it was -- it's just not -- it's just not factually correct, and I have -- I have testified under oath about this.

RUSSERT: You have?

NOVAK: Yes.

RUSSERT: That they did not give you the name?

NOVAK: Yes.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report

On the same program, Novak initially repeated the false claim that the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq concluded that it was Plame who had "initiate[d]" Wilson's trip to Niger. Novak said: "I then called the CIA, and the spokesman told me that she [Plame] didn't initiate it, she facilitated it. That -- that happened to be wrong, because the Senate Intelligence Committee has said that she did initiate the trip and they have a document to prove it." Russert challenged Novak, noting that the bipartisan report did not conclude that Plame had initiated the trip. Novak then acknowledged that it was actually "the Republican majority" that came to that conclusion, but then misleadingly claimed that the committee Democrats "didn't dissent" from the Republicans, and again claimed there is a document that proves the Republicans right:

RUSSERT: Well, the Senate Intelligence Committee indicated that, but they did not conclude it.

NOVAK: The -- I believe that the -- that the Republican majority concluded it.

RUSSERT: The Republican majority did, but the Democrats did not.

NOVAK: They didn't -- they didn't take it up and they didn't dissent from it, either.

RUSSERT: It's not an official conclusion, but it is in the report as an indication.

NOVAK: And the -- and there's a document that -- that confirms it.

Russert failed to challenge Novak to expand upon his claim of a single "document" that "confirms" Plame "initiate[d]" Wilson's trip to Niger. But as Media Matters for America has noted, unnamed intelligence officials have been quoted in the media claiming that it was the CIA -- not Plame -- that selected Wilson for the trip. Also, CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of a State Department intelligence document that reportedly indicates Plame "suggested" Wilson for the trip. Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), in his addendum to the report, noted that "my Democrat colleagues refused to allow the following conclusion[] to appear in the report: Conclusion: The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee."

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Robert Novak
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