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Daily Howler: When Harlow explained what he told Bob Novak, he described a weak request
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PROFILE OF A WEAK REQUEST! When Harlow explained what he told Bob Novak, he described a weak request: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 29, 2005

PROFILE OF A WEAK REQUEST: At the risk of provoking fury from liberal readers, the most interesting Thursday post we saw was this one, by the estimable David Corn. An edited version of the piece appears at the site of The Nation.

Overview: In his piece, David discusses Bob Novak’s fateful decision to report the fact that Joe Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. More specifically, David discusses Novak’s call to the CIA to confirm what he’d heard about Plame. Novak described this conversation in an October 2003 op-ed column—and just this Wednesday, the Post’s Walter Pincus added a new perspective. Pincus had interviewed Bill Harlow, the CIA spokesman with whom Novak spoke. In the Post, Pincus gave Harlow’s version of his conversation with Novak.

In short, we now have accounts from both Novak and Harlow. In his piece, David is struck by the “contradictions” between the two accounts, and he says that Harlow’s account shoots down Novak’s excuse for publishing. At the risk of provoking fury, we have to say we disagree on both counts.

First, the alleged contradictions. David quotes Novak’s account of his exchange with Harlow, from his October 03 column:

NOVAK (10/1/03): At the CIA, the official designated to talk to me denied that Wilson's wife had inspired his selection [for the trip to Niger] but said she was delegated to request his help. He asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause "difficulties" if she travels abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name. I used it in the sixth paragraph of my column because it looked like the missing explanation of an otherwise incredible choice by the CIA for its mission.
That was Novak’s account of what happened when he called the CIA. Next, David produced Harlow’s account, as laid out this Wednesday by Pincus:
PINCUS (7/27/05): Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission [to Niger] and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.

Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.

“So how many contradictions can you find?” David asks. Our answer: As a matter of fact, we can’t find any. In fact, given the emotion surrounding this matter, we think it’s amazing that these two men’s accounts are so similar.

Indeed, Novak and Harlow disagree on nothing. According to Novak, he was told that Plame had not “inspired Wilson’s selection” for the trip. Harlow’s account is virtually indistinguishable; according to Pincus’ paraphrase, Harlow says he told Novak that Plame “had not authorized the mission.” According to Novak, Harlow “asked me not to use [Plame’s] name;” Harlow describes himself making the same request. According to Novak, Harlow “never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered.” In the Pincus account, Harlow makes no contrary claim (more on this below). Harlow does say that he and Novak spoke twice, a fact that Novak doesn’t mention. But there are no contradictions in these accounts; indeed, they’re remarkably similar. In most matters this highly-charged, someone would have made something up or omitted some key point. In this case, that plainly hasn’t happened.

No, there are no contradictions here; the two accounts are strikingly similar. But we’d ask you to notice one other point; Harlow’s account tends to support Novak’s claim that the CIA made a half-hearted effort to persuade him against outing Plame.

How hard did Harlow try to protect Plame’s cover? Harlow’s own account describes a weak attempt to persuade Novak not to publish. Many readers will be drawn to Harlow’s claim that he used “the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information.” (As David points out, Harlow wouldn’t be permitted to reveal that Plame was undercover, since that fact is classified.) But what did Harlow ask of Novak? By Harlow’s own account, he made a remarkably weak request, drawing a distinction which has been universally ridiculed in another context:

PINCUS: [Harlow] said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.
“[I]f he did write about it, her name should not be revealed?” That is a stunningly weak request, yet Harlow describes himself making this request both times he spoke to Novak. What makes that request so weak? As every good liberal correctly noted when Karl Rove tried to offer a silly defense, the mere omission of Plame’s name would not have protected her covert status. Indeed, if Novak had written his column but omitted her name, her name would have instantly obvious—“Mrs. Joseph Wilson”—and her maiden name, “Valerie Plame,” would have been available from several on-line bios of Wilson. Indeed, how weak was Harlow’s request? Here’s what Novak wrote in his original column—followed by what he would have written if he had done what Harlow asked:
WHAT NOVAK ACTUALLY WROTE (7/14/03): Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

WHAT NOVAK WOULD HAVE WRITTEN: Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

Novak and Harlow agree on what Harlow requested—he asked that Novak avoid using Plame’s name. But that was an amazingly weak request—a request which would have produced a small, pointless change to Novak’s column, the tiny change recorded above. (For the record, Novak did report what Harlow told him—that Plame hadn’t played a significant role in setting up Wilson’s mission.)

We just can’t agree with David on this. Are there contradictions? No, there are not. More significantly, does Harlow undercut Novak’s claim that he was given a weak warning concerning Plame? We’d have to say “no” to that one too. Here is David’s judgment:

CORN (7/28/05): Harlow's account—in which he tried to protect Valerie Wilson from the quick-to-out-her columnist—is as self-serving as Novak's. But it rings true. Am I saying this because of my own bias? Perhaps. But the key thing is that Novak's defense—the CIA didn't give me a strong enough signal—is now in dispute. No one can use Novak's October 1, 2003, column as evidence that Valerie Wilson was not truly a "covert agent.”
We disagree with David on every key point. Did Harlow and Novak give “self-serving accounts?” For ourselves, we wouldn’t say that. Indeed, if Harlow had wanted to be self-serving, he could have doctored his account in ways he plainly didn’t. But how about the key point here: Did Harlow “try to protect Valerie Wilson from the quick-to-out-her columnist?” We’d have to say this—he didn’t try very hard. If Harlow wanted to fight to protect Plame’s cover, he might have said something like this:
WHAT HARLOW COULD HAVE SAID: As you of course know, I am not allowed to confirm or deny the status of any covered agent. But I will urge you to understand that, if you write about this matter, you will be endangering American assets around the world, and perhaps the lives of American intelligence sources. No, Valerie Wilson didn’t authorize Ambassador Wilson’s trip to Niger. But any public discussion of her role in this matter could cause substantial harm to American security interests.
From that, Novak could have inferred that Plame was, or had been, under cover. But then, he could have inferred the same thing from Harlow’s weaker request:
PINCUS: [Harlow] said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used.
“Plame’s name should not be used?” From that, Novak could have drawn an inference too. But by both men’s accounts, Harlow’s request was weak: Don’t use her name. By both accounts, he failed to offer a stronger request: Don’t discuss her at all.

“Am I saying this because of my own bias? Perhaps,” David says of his judgements. Indeed, at times of partisan fury, we are all inclined to see the facts line up in support of our partisan leanings. All we would say is this: Novak and Harlow give similar accounts—and, according to these accounts, Harlow made a remarkably weak request (a request which turned on a pointless distinction correctly ridiculed when offered by Rove). Indeed, after reading Harlow’s account of this matter, you could even imagine that an upstanding senator from a corn belt state might want to conduct high-minded hearings about “problems related to how the intelligence community protects its officers.” (See Kevin Drum’s update on this matter.) We’re not saying that those are Pat Roberts’ motives; we still don’t know what the lickspittle plans. But were U.S. interests really harmed when Novak wrote about Plame’s role? If so, the CIA made an extremely modest attempt to protect those interests when Harlow made his weak request of Novak: If you write about Wilson’s wife, her name should not be revealed.

DISTRUST BUT VERIFY: Regarding Pat Roberts, e-mailers have written to explain why they’re “suspicious” or “skeptical” about the masterful solon’s intentions. This mailer used a third construction:

E-MAIL: Bob, part of the distrust of Pat Roberts comes from his role in the teeth-grindingly dishonest Senate Intelligence Committee probe. Remember? The WMD problem was because of "group think"? And they put off the probe into whether various, uh, interests stovepiped and cherry-picked—one might almost say "fixed"—intelligence around the desired result until after the election, and they now have canceled the tough part of the inquiry? That was Roberts' committee.

It may be that his responses to Blitzer, or his few statements on the Plame inquiry, are being trashed without full textual analysis. But it's his track record that may be the determining factor in those discussions.

We agree. There are plenty of reasons to “distrust” Roberts—to be “suspicious” or “skeptical” about him. But that would be a reason for asking hard questions about these proposed hearings—not for announcing, on the basis of laughably limited data, that he has the vilest motives imaginable. And it isn’t a reason to do the thing that initiated our complaint this week—to offer two plainly inaccurate posts about what Roberts said on Late Edition (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/26/05). Indeed, that’s a practice we’ve attacked for year after year—when it has mainly been aimed at Democrats. Gore hasn’t made any laughable statements? So what! We’ll make up a quote, and we’ll just pretend that he said it! Now, when this practice is aimed at Roberts, we’re supposed to sit back here and smile.

American political history changed when that two-year War Against Gore was permitted. Some who are putting inaccurate “quotes” into Roberts’ mouth said nothing—nada—while this process went on. Your lives all changed because of their silence. Their shouting does not thrill us.

MORE GORE: Speaking of Gore, a minor 08 boomlet spread across the liberal web on Thursday. We encountered it first when we read Matt Yglesias. Later, Atrios signed on as well.

A quick note on Yglesias’ analysis: We agree with his basic take about Gore’s profile on Iraq.

YGLESIAS (7/28/05): Gore offers, I think, just about what the Democrats need: an opposition to the Iraq War that's based neither on retrospective carping nor a general reluctance to use force, but rather a realistic assessment of the weakness of the case for war. He was a liberal hawk back in the 1980s before it was cool and, even better, made an effort during his congressional days to become a genuine expert on military issues and not just rack up a reflexively "tough" record. He backed the first Gulf War when most of his colleagues opposed it. During the Clinton administration he was, by all accounts, identified with the more aggressive side during the internal foreign-policy debates.

But as the country moved toward the invasion of Iraq he saw—at the time—what most liberal hawks now concede at least privately in retrospect: that there was no urgent security threat from Iraq and that the Bush administration wasn't up to the task of accomplishing the more airily idealistic things that one might cite in the war's favor.

Three key words there: At the time. Indeed, we’ve noted that Gore’s real-time, 9/02 speech on Iraq ended up looking pleasingly prescient; we spent four days on the subject last year (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/5/04). Many times during the 04 race, we thought how much better off Kerry would be if he had established this same track record. (Of course, the fact that Kerry opposed the original Gulf War would have compromised his position. If he had said the things Gore did in 9/02, he would have been slammed as a sissy-boy who was too shell-shocked to march us to war.) More specifically, we thought how much better off the Dems would be if Gore were their candidate, given the profile he established with that speech. But Gore couldn’t have run in 04 for an obvious reason—an obvious reason Yglesias, and Marshall Wittmann before him, failed to bring up in their posts.

Could Gore run in 2008? Given the way he was demonized in Campaign 2000, it would have been impossible to run in 04, as became perfectly clear when he seemed to sample the waters during the fall of 02. All the brain-dead themes returned; indeed, when Gore gave that prescient speech, he was quickly re-slammed and re-ridiculed. On one major show, pundits were deeply disturbed by his hair, and by the troubling way he had sweated:

HANNITY (9/23/02): Hey, Dick.

MORRIS: Hey, Sean. Good evening.

HANNITY: How are you, Dick? One thing that really stood out—first of all, look at Gore. Look at his hair. It’s a mess.

HANNITY: He’s sweating profusely, right? He seems very angry at different points in the speech. He didn’t look presidential. I didn’t see any gravitas, any leadership.

That was the clownish Hannity & Colmes. But in the august and serious Washington Post, the late Michael Kelly was soon saying this:
KELLY (9/25/02): Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts—bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.
But then, the predictable mainstream clowning was everywhere. For example, the night before Kelly’s column appeared, George Will used Gore’s speech on Iraq as an excuse for some entertaining gay humor. Try to believe that this really happened—and that no one said Word One about it:
HANNITY (9/24/02): I assume, if you didn’t see Vice—former Vice President Gore’s speech, you read about it.

WILL: I read it.

HANNITY: I’ll tell you, it was scarier watching it. He looked angry, he was sweating, he was not presidential, and he contradicted himself continually throughout the speech. “Yes, he’s a danger. Yes, he’s a threat. But we can’t act unilaterally. But maybe we need to act unilaterally.” I mean—

WILL: He gave it—he gave it in San Francisco, which I thought was an unfortunate venue because—

HANNITY: At the Commonwealth Club.

WILL: Well, it recalled the 1984 convention that they had out there when Jean Kirkpatrick coined the phrase “San Francisco Democrats.” This suggests something a little bit strange in that party.

Amazing, isn’t it? It recalled the 1984 convention! But this had become a press corps template during Campaign 2000—when it comes to All Things Gore, there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t say it. Indeed, when Gore gave another speech on Iraq in June 04, the Usual Suspects again started clowning. Gore was “reinventing himself,” Ryan Lizza recited (moments before Jonah Goldberg said the same thing), treating himself to a pleasing old script—and yes, all the other old scripts came out too, voiced by libs and mainstreamers as well as by conservatives (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/2/04). They became Press Corps Classics during Campaign 2000. And no—they have never been dropped.

None of this has a thing to do with either Atrios or Yglesias. But it’s amazing to see the Gore boomlet spread without a word said about this background reality—without a word about the relationship between Gore and the mainstream press. During Campaign 2000, the mainstream press corps—the Post and the Times—conducted a twenty-month War Against Gore, and because it was a mainstream press event, almost all good career liberal writers kept silent. Some of those who yell the loudest about Roberts today were very good boys during Campaign 2000, and that helped change our political life—and it created the background reality which affects any thought of Gore in 08. Gore couldn’t have run in 04, as Atrios seems to suggest; this was clear from the press corps trashing that accompanied his trial run in the fall of 02. Could he run in 2008? It’s amazing to see this question raised without a single word of discussion about the poisoned press waters. How long will major liberals refuse to discuss what happened in Campaign 2000? How long will they cover for the Post and the Times? How long will they maintain the press corps’ secrets? Your lives were changed by that two-year press war, a war liberal journals agreed to ignore, and it’s silly to talk about Gore 08 without discussing that two-year war now. But you’ll have to insist that they stand up and do it. (No, we’re not talking about Atrios or Yglesias.) The loudest, bravest screamers today were very good boys during Campaign 2000. They kept their mouths shut very tight (and have continued to do so in the years since). You’ll have to get a f*cking crowbar to pry their mouths open today—except, of course, when they open them wide to pander to you about Vile Roberts. They’ll loudly declaim about The Vile Other—and keep their mouths shut about the press organs in which liberals work their careers.

Could Al Gore run in 2008? Rationally, it can’t be discussed without discussing the mainstream press war that put George Bush in the White House. But insider career liberals just hate to go there. They’ve kept their mouths shut about this for years. Yes, we think Atrios would open his yap. But there’s no sign that many would follow. They have always put their own interests first. You and your family? You can eat cake—and can feast on some loud, silly panders.