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Daily Howler: Where did Novak hear ''Plame,'' Kornblut asks. We'll offer a wild guess--George Tenet!
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WHAT’S IN A NAME! Where did Novak hear “Plame,” Kornblut asks. We’ll offer a wild guess—George Tenet! // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, 2005

WHAT’S IN A NAME: Good grief! We’ve told you for years that they just aren’t that sharp. But only a New York Times scribe could find such chaff in a hillside of wheat! Discussing Bob Novak’s Monday column, Anne Kornblut zeroes on this:
KORNBLUT (8/2/05): One of the most puzzling aspects of the C.I.A. leak case has had to do with the name of the exposed officer. Why did the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak identify her as Valerie Plame in exposing her link to the C.I.A. in July 2003 when she had been known for years both at the agency and in her personal life by her married name, Valerie Wilson?
Why did Novak use the name “Plame?” We can think of several possibilities (see below). But Kornblut only thinks of one, and her reasoning just ain’t that sharp:
KORNBLUT: Mr. Novak offered a possible explanation for the disconnect on Monday, suggesting in his column that he could have obtained Ms. Wilson's maiden name from the directory Who's Who in America, which used that name in identifying her as the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador.
Did Novak really “suggest” in his column that he got Plame’s name from Who’s Who? No, not really, as you’ll see if you read Kornblut’s full piece. Meanwhile, everyone has always known that Novak could have gotten “Plame” from Who’s Who. (As Kornblut notes, Novak himself noted the use of “Plame” in Wilson’s listing back in October 2003.) But is that where Novak got the name? Even if Kornblut’s supposition is true, it sheds no light on the ethical questions raised by Novak’s role in this case. With inerrant accuracy, Kornblut starts with a matter of no importance. At the Times, they go straight to the chaff.

But then, Josh Marshall reasons even less clearly in his post about Kormblut’s report. After wasting her time on the Who’s Who foofaw, Kornblut touches on a more relevant point from Novak’s new column. She slightly jumbles the logic of what Novak said. But here is what she wrote:

KORNBLUT: Any request that he withhold Ms. Wilson's name from his column of July 14, 2003, would have been "meaningless" once he had been told she was married to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Novak wrote on Monday, because she was openly listed in the directory. But Mr. Novak also wrote that he would never have used Ms. Wilson's name had anyone from the C.I.A. told him that doing so would endanger her or anyone else.
That account is slightly jumbled. In his actual column, Novak quoted the Washington Post’s account of what he was told by the CIA’s Bill Harlow. Here’s the passage to which Kornblut refers:
NOVAK (8/1/05): [Harlow] told the Post reporters he had "warned" me that if I "did write about it her name should not be revealed." That is meaningless. Once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as "Valerie Plame" by reading her husband's entry in "Who's Who in America.”
What exactly did Harlow tell Novak? There is no tape or transcript available. But if he merely told Novak to avoid Plame’s name, then yes, that request would be meaningless. In his column, Novak implies that this is all Harlow asked, and that’s how it sounded to us from the Post—although an e-mailer correctly noted that we can’t be sure what was said. Meanwhile, Josh seems puzzled by Novak’s reasoning. “Again, this is nonsense,” he blogs, referring to the quoted passage from Kornblut. “The disclosure was identifying Wilson's wife as a CIA operative, not that he had a wife, which needless to say was not a state secret.” We’re not quite sure what that means, but you’re invited to read Josh’s full post and try to figure it out. (Josh does make a remarkable insinuation about Novak; we’ll directly address it below.)

So what’s in a name? Kornblut tries to puzzle why Novak used “Plame.” Did Novak get it from Who”s Who? Maybe—but we have a second idea. Maybe Novak got the name somewhere else. Maybe Novak got “Plame” from—let’s take a guess—his original source, named “Tenet.”

Why throw Tenet into the stew? He’s always been on our list of possibles, but one part of Novak’s new column had us ogling him once again. Principally, Novak says he wasn’t told by his original source that Plame had “authorized” Wilson’s trip. “I was told she ‘suggested’ the mission,” he writes, “and that is what I asked Harlow.” But after Novak makes this claim, he restates an earlier claim—he wouldn’t have mentioned Plame at all if he’d been told it might endanger someone. And uh-oh! He throws a famous name in the mix, for no obvious reason:

NOVAK: Harlow said to the Post that he did not tell me Mrs. Wilson "was undercover because that was classified." What he did say was, as I reported in a previous column, "she probably never again would be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause ‘difficulties.' " According to CIA sources, she was brought home from foreign assignments in 1997, when agency officials feared she had been "outed" by the traitor Aldrich Ames.

I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Harlow, then-CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody.

Huh! Our analysts began to rise from their chairs. Why was Tenet’s name in there? Why would Tenet have said that to Novak? How would Tenet have known what Novak might be writing about? Why would “then-CIA Director George Tenet” have offered Novak this warning?

It may be that Novak simply assumes that Harlow reported his inquiry to Tenet. But Tenet (along with his second, John McLaughlin) has long been on our incomparable list as possible Novak original sources. Let’s take a look at the record! According to Joe Wilson, Novak said, in July 2003, that he got his info from “a CIA source.” Novak later called this source “no partisan gunslinger,” a fair description of Tenet (and McLaughlin). Any by the way, Tenet is a famous hail-fellow-well-met, an affable man who knows agents by name—and who may even remember the names by which he met them, before they got married.

At the Times, Kornblut was racking her brain, trying to figure why Novak said “Plame.” For ourselves, we don’t know why he did that—and yes, he may have looked it up, as Kornblut oddly says he “suggested.” But as long as Kornblut is making weak guesses, we’ll go ahead and throw one out too. Kornblut started when she saw Novak say “Plame.” We started too, just yesterday morning, when we saw Novak say “Tenet.”

DIGBY’S COMPLAINT: How should we judge Novak’s behavior? For ourselves, we’ll wait for more info (and frankly, this question isn’t tops on our list). In our view, though, Digby has made the best argument against Novak’s conduct, in this piece, which he posted on Monday. But note: Digby assumes that Novak was deliberately carrying the White House’s water. “Novak knew what Rove and Libby wanted him to do and, alone among his peers, he ran with the petty little detail they were working hard to get into the papers,” the Digmeister says. But what if Novak got his original info from Tenet, “no partisan gunslinger?” And what if he checked with Harlow and heard a weak request not to use Plame’s name? In the next few days, we’ll discuss, in further detail, our reasons for withholding judgment here until more information emerges (disinterst in trivia would be one reason). Kevin Drum correctly says that the main stage is the Fitzgerald probe, not the sideshow concerning Novak. That’s true, but the Novak sideshow helps us examine the way we on the liberal web are now gathering “facts” and marshaling logic. And it helps us see how hard we pray for some sort of crime that we can enjoy. (We think this is a troubling sign, for reasons we’ll continue to explain.) We’ll continue to discuss these matters this week—but we recommend Digby’s post as the best argument to date against Novak. We expect we’ll come back to it.

JOSH’S INSINUATION: The liberal web is increasingly becoming a place for uninhibited demonization. For example, read this post by Arianna concerning Judith Miller—a post that is dumb and remarkably slimy. Six years ago, this same writer was directing this sort of “four-button” logic at the Democratic candidate, Gore (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/05), helping George Bush find his way to the White House. Now she plays the same game—on a different side. But can this possibly be the way we want progressives to reason?

In our view, this sort of unfettered demonization is spreading all over the liberal web. For example, Josh Marshall makes a remarkable insinuation about Novak in the post we linked to above. Why did Novak say “Plame,” not “Wilson?” Here is Josh’s thought on the matter:

MARSHALL: The real problem, though, is that Kornblut doesn't examine another series of potential motives and the abundant evidence of Novak's mendacity on this subject.

Novak's use of Plame's name has been used to try to narrow down who his sources may have been—something that Novak has a strong interest in concealing. Many have also speculated that Plame/Wilson was identified by the name 'Plame' precisely to cause the most damage to her career and the clandestine networks she had been involved in, since this was name she'd used through most of her career.

In other words, there's a very clear potential motive for referring to her by her maiden name. It's not a meaningless distinction.

What a remarkable “speculation!” According to Marshall, Novak may have said “Plame” instead of “Wilson” so he could do the most possible damage to US interests around the world! Using “Wilson” wouldn’t have damaged (or killed) enough US assets. So Novak said “Plame” instead.

Wow! This speculation is truly remarkable, although it doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, Novak didn’t use the name of Plame’s front company in his first column, but that name was quickly revealed by others doing follow-up work. Similarly, if Novak had written about “Valerie Wilson,” “Valerie Plame” would quickly have followed. And that would have given Novak the best of both worlds. He could have enjoyed seeing US assets destroyed—all without having to take direct blame for the use of “Plame.”

But understand what Josh is saying. He isn’t content to say that Novak was reckless, punitive, malicious or venal; he’s saying that Novak deliberately wanted to see US assets destroyed (and, presumably, US sources killed). The more harm to US interests, the better! This strikes us as sensible reasoning—if you’re writing a Spiderman comic book. But in our view, this is where things have been heading on the liberal web, as we’ve been noting for several weeks now. That “four-button” logic is spreading fast. We think this trend will be bad for liberals, for reasons we’ll explain all this week.

WHY WILSON: Readers have asked an excellent question: Why do we still occasionally mention Joe Wilson’s shaky past pronouncements? After all, they say, Wilson’s statements, erroneous or brilliant, have nothing to do with the question of whether his wife was illegally outed. That is true, and as we’ve noted, we get the impression that prosecutor Fitzgerald may think US interests were badly damaged as a result of the Plame outing—and that a serious crime was committed in the process. But for people who want to ponder and judge the facts of this case, there still are reasons for noting Wilson’s misstatements. Consider, for example, Jim VandeHei’s session on Countdown just last night.

Along with Pincus, VandeHei co-wrote last week’s Post report—the one which described Novak’s chit-chat with Harlow and reported other tangy new facts. Last night, VandeHei appeared on Countdown, where he spoke with guest host Alison Stewart. At one point, he made an intriguing reply to one of Stewart’s questions:

VANDEHEI (8/1/05): Well, there’s two accounts out there. There’s one—the Senate Intelligence Committee did come up with a report that said that Valerie Plame did play a pretty big role in authorizing her husband’s mission to Niger. The CIA officials have told us that there was some confusion about testimony given to the Intelligence Committee because three years earlier, she had actually authorized a mission for her husband to Niger and CIA officials are telling us they think some of those facts might have been confused and left a false impression.
We don’t really agree with that first assessment; we don’t think the Senate report says that Plame “did play a pretty big role in authorizing her husband’s mission to Niger.” But look at the highlighted statement by VandeHei. Three years earlier (in 1999), Plame “had actually authorized a mission for her husband to Niger?” Perhaps VandeHei is simply speaking loosely again, but this claim undercuts things we’ve been told ever since this story began—things we’ve principally been told by Wilson, who has largely framed the mainstream view of this case since July 2003. For two years, we’ve been told that there was just no way Plame could have played any real role in any decision to send him to Niger. But uh-oh! Last week, Pincus and VandeHei seemed to report something different—something that seemed to contradict a frame that mainly came to us from Wilson.

Starting in July 2003, the mainstream understanding of this issue was largely framed by Wilson. Many of the things you assume to be true came to you from Wilson’s account. But, for all his manifest virtues, Wilson has frequently been a shaky witness; unfortunately, his misstatements have been bold and fairly common. From that, we would draw the following judgment—if you want to know what really happened, you probably shouldn’t simply assume that his frameworks are accurate. By the way, how do you know that Plame was still connected to valuable US security assets? You mainly “know” that because Wilson told you. As we have said, we get the impression that Fitzgerald agrees. But we are going to hold our judgment until we learn from a documented source.

There’s a million good things to be said about Wilson—but accuracy hasn’t been one of his strong suits. In the next few days, we’ll continue to sketch what we have in mind by all this—the frameworks which have come from Wilson, and the reason to be careful about assuming they’re true. If you don’t want to read what we have to say, don’t! But we hope readers will abandon their feeble impulse to search for our “motives” in presenting this material—to search for reasons why we’d say things like this. We’ve worked much longer and harder—much longer and harder—than you have done on matters like this, and by the way, who was right in March 1999 and every day for twenty months after that, while your fiery heroes stared off into space, putting the current prez in the White House? Given the track record of the past seven years, you don’t have to agree with anything we say, but you might put your “motive” theoretics away. We’ll explain our “motives”—and they’re very high-minded, just as they were when they produced pleasing stories, stories you liked, and you praised us for our fine, lofty values.

HARLOW UNCHAINED: Many libs have recited a silly script. Indeed, VandeHei gave it a go it last night:

VANDEHEI (8/1/05): Well, first off, Novak isn`t in any legal trouble. I think what we`re getting here at is, should he have ever disclosed her name in print, which he did? And the dispute here is between Novak and Bill Harlow, who used to be the spokesman for the CIA. And he says—Harlow told us that in very strong terms that he told Novak, Do not print her name. Now, Harlow could not say that would be outing a covert operative, because then he himself would be doing that. But he said in as strong a terms as he possibly could, he waved Novak off from writing that name.
Poor Harlow! Every scandal-lovin’ liberal knows to say what VandeHei said—that Harlow warned Novak “as strongly as he possibly could” because he couldn’t discuss Plame’s status directly. But this script, though pleasing, is utterly silly. Once again, here’s the Pincus/VandeHei account of Harlow’s conversation with Novak:
PINCUS/VANEDHEI (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 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.

If that account captures what Harlow said, then of course he could have warned Novak more forcefully. We suggested a stronger warning in THE HOWLER last week:
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.
Of course Harlow could have said something like that. (Perhaps he did.) But readers, in love with a good pleasing script, rushed to tell us that this was sheer nonsense. Why, poor Harlow had gone as far as he could! Indeed, he had even said so himself! And everyone knows the CIA never spins! Why, what we were saying was crazy!

Yes, that script is potent and pleasing, if you want to eliminate any chance that Harlow may have under-warned Novak. But uh-oh! On Sunday, we were re-reading a part of Wilson’s book, The Politics of Truth. (It’s a very good read, by the way.) On page 347, he quotes an earlier account of what Harlow told Novak, from Murray Waas in the American Prospect. That earlier account, which Wilson affirms, is much like the account we suggested:

WAAS (2/12/04): Two government officials have told the FBI that conservative columnist Robert Novak was asked specifically not to publish the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in his now-famous July 14 newspaper column. The two officials told investigators they warned Novak that by naming Plame he might potentially jeopardize her ability to engage in covert work, stymie ongoing intelligence operations, and jeopardize sensitive overseas sources.
That alleged warning is close to what we suggested last week, and Wilson presents it approvingly in his book. But last week, when we suggested that Harlow should have said something like this, everyone knew to recite Harlow’s script. He couldn’t have said something like that, we were told. Impossible! He’d be breaking the law!!!

What did Harlow say to Novak? We have no special way of knowing. But if we were running the CIA and we read the account that Pincus presented, we’d call our spokesman in but fast. “Is that all you said?” we would ask him.

We know—you love that pleasing story. And we’re not saying it’s wrong—we can’t tell. But we do think the liberal web should continue as a rational, logical venue. We’ll continue to explain our concerns about the web’s drift all this week. By the way: Our instincts were right back in March 99. And what did your heroes say then?