December 3, 2004


Bob in Paradise: How Novak created his own ethics-free zone. (Amy Sullivan, December 2004, Washington Monthly)

Robert Novak was in high dudgeon. He and his colleagues on CNN's “The Capital Gang” were squabbling over whether CBS should have run a story on President George W. Bush's National Guard service, a story which relied on documents whose authenticity had come into question. Novak—the show's resident curmudgeon, outfitted with a three-piece suit and permanently arched eyebrow—delivered his verdict. “I'd like CBS, at this point, to say where they got those documents from,” he growled. “I think they should say where they got these documents because I thought it was a very poor job of reporting by CBS.”

Resident liberal Al Hunt jumped in to clarify. “Robert Novak,” he asked, “you're saying CBS should reveal its source?” When Novak replied that he was, Hunt pressed him further. “You think reporters ought to reveal sources?” In a flash, Novak realized he had made a mistake; he began to backtrack. “No, no, wait a minute,” he said. “I'm just saying in that case.” So in some cases, Hunt continued, reporters should reveal their sources—but not in all cases? “That's right,” said Novak.

What Novak's fellow panelists on “The Capital Gang” knew that day, but most of the show's viewers probably didn't, was that much of Washington has spent the better part of a year waiting for Novak to reveal a source of his own. During the summer of 2003, someone in the Bush White House decided to extract a pound of flesh from former Amb. Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's rationale for the Iraq war, by revealing to members of the press that Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA agent. And though the leak was peddled to several journalists, only one was willing to actually print it: Robert Novak.

By exposing the name of Wilson's wife—Valerie Plame—Novak not only put an end to her undercover work on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues, possibly putting at risk the lives of any foreign sources who may have cooperated with her. He also may have abetted a federal crime: It's a felony for a government official to knowingly disclose the name of any undercover agency operative, an act serious enough that the Bush administration eventually agreed to name an independent prosecutor (the only one appointed during Bush's first term) to find out who was responsible.

If a crime was committed then Mr. Novak should be made toi reveal his source--the best available evidfence suggests that none was and that his report was a simple statement of fact. CBS's report, on the other hand, was a pastiche of lies. Oddly enough, the cases share a common trait--both arose from attacks on the President, in one case by the CIA, in the other by Texas Democratic operatives.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2004 1:35 PM

Now let me get this straight. If a source gives a newsman false or manufactured evidence, then the newsman is still obligated to respect his confidentiality.

Posted by: h-man at December 3, 2004 2:18 PM

CBS's report, on the other hand, was a pastiche of lies.

And I'm sure you'd can enumerate those lies, right? With evidence demonstrating that the assertions, not just the documents, were false?

Posted by: Steve M. at December 3, 2004 3:42 PM


"not just the documents"? Good one.

Posted by: oj at December 3, 2004 4:26 PM

There is a fine line between a fisherman and a fish... as there is between a source and a journalist!

Posted by: Jozef Imrich at December 3, 2004 7:25 PM

The proof of how irrevelant Madame Plame's case, is seen in how the cv of the new operations chief
(although the fact he's a 28 year veteran and a
former Mexico City station chief) and that of the
departing East Asian and Western European Division
chiefs have been kept secret. Compare that with the Nation's revealing the identity of every Guatemalan station chief in the 1977-95 period,
every Haiti station chief etc

Posted by: narciso at December 3, 2004 11:02 PM

Since Valerie Plame wasn't an "undercover agent," Amy Sullivan is just engaging in disinformation, in order to keep hoax alive.

Posted by: Nicholas Stix at December 4, 2004 8:27 PM