Accuracy in Media

Robert Novak’s decision to speak publicly about his role in the CIA leak case reinforces our view that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald investigated the wrong people. Novak, who was doing his job and never violated any law against disclosing the secret identities of CIA agents, has said that he believes that CIA employee Valerie Plame’s identity was disclosed by Aldrich Ames, the former CIA agent who was in the service of the Soviet Union, long before he wrote his column.

The CIA, of course, had to know this. Nevertheless, a faction of the agency got the investigation of Novak and his sources under way through a request to the Justice Department. Almost on cue, the media then joined that campaign, using it to damage the Bush foreign policy on Iraq. In the end, though, all they could come up with was a questionable indictment of vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby, who is going on trial mainly because his memory of events conflicts with that of Tim Russert and other media figures.

Now, ironically, with the filing of a lawsuit against Vice President Cheney himself, there is a chance that more information about the nature of what appeared to be a joint CIA/media campaign against the Bush Administration will be revealed. That’s why we suspect the suit is a publicity stunt and will eventually be dropped or thrown out. It has the potential to backfire.

Novak’s “crime “was supposed to be that he revealed the name of Valerie Plame as the wife of Joseph Wilson. Wilson was the former ambassador sent to the African nation of Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was attempting to purchase uranium yellowcake, a form of lightly processed ore used in the enrichment of uranium to produce nuclear weapons.

But it was no “crime” to reveal that name and the information was true. What’s more, several of the false claims in this case can be attributed to Wilson, who wrote a column for the New York Times in July 2003 trying to discredit President Bush’s claim made in his 2003 State of the Union address that “British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Bush’s statement was true. The Brits stand by that assessment, and claim multiple sources. Yet, the Bush administration, fearing the fallout from Wilson’s claim being made in the New York Times and being jumped on by many in the media,  backed off the State of the Union statement. That was a huge mistake. It fed the media feeding frenzy.

The real issue was why Joseph Wilson was the person to go to Niger to seek the answers. Though he believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, he was an administration critic, opposed to the war, and possessed no particular knowledge of WMD.

Novak, not Wilson, was the true whistleblower. His column questioned why Wilson had been sent, and revealed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, had been involved in the decision to send him. That should have led to an investigation of the CIA. Instead, the CIA turned the matter on its head, demanding and getting an investigation of Novak and his sources.

Now we know that Novak was given this information by an unnamed source in the Bush administration, believed to be Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s Deputy Secretary of State. Fitzgerald knew the source of the “leak,” which actually came during an hour-long conversation about other matters. Novak testified before a grand jury in early 2004, and did so because Fitzgerald made it clear to him that he knew who his source was, who confirmed it for him (top Bush aide Karl Rove), and who at the CIA (Bill Harlow) confirmed for him that Wilson’s wife was indeed a CIA analyst involved in the area of WMD.

Now we know that Fitzgerald, from the start of the investigation, didn’t believe that anyone had broken the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which was the basis for his investigation in the first place! So why did Fitzgerald allow this case to drag on for two-and-a-half more years?

Fitzgerald is a well-respected prosecutor and he may have thought that he had to come up with something to justify his probe. We do know that he wound up with a weak perjury charge against Libby, and that is it. Libby will be able to defend himself by arguing that he had a different recollection of events, and that this should not be the basis for finding someone guilty of lying. He will probably go free, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself. 

Based on what Novak and others have said on the record, the basic conclusion is that there was no effort to destroy Wilson by exposing his wife’s identity. There was, however, an administration effort to get out the facts about the Wilson mission and who was behind it. That’s the investigation that the CIA feared-and which has never taken place.

The deception was immense. As we have noted on several occasions, Wilson denied in his book, The Politics of Truth, that his wife had any role in his being picked for the assignment, but a document discovered by the Senate Intelligence Committee led the Republican majority to conclude, without a Democratic dissent, that Plame had indeed been the person who recommended her husband for the job.

Wilson and Plame have now filed suit against Cheney and Rove, among others, for allegedly destroying her career through a vindictive act to get back at her husband for “telling the truth” about what they believe to be the administration’s deceitful manipulation of evidence in order to take the country to war against Iraq.

That charge is bunk. But the suit could inadvertently end up producing new information about what the media know about Wilson and Plame.

Novak has had different recollections than other figures involved in the case. But he’s not the only one. NBC chief foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell created a stir when she stated a few months after Novak’s original column that Plame’s identity was well known in certain Washington circles, undermining the claim that Novak had “outed” her. She later claimed to have misspoken. Did Mitchell talk to Tim Russert and others in the media about Wilson and Plame? Did they talk to Libby?

The Wilson-Plame lawsuit could hurt not only Plame and Wilson but prominent members of the press. It will be interesting to see people like Russert and Mitchell take the stand and squirm.

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