Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Focusing on the Inessential

Robert Novak's August 1 column was the subject yesterday of a New York Times story by Anne E. Kornblut. I don't think I've ever seen a piece of journalism so resolutely focused on the inessential.

Novak's column mentions the fact that Joseph Wilson's entry in Who's Who in America identifies his wife by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. Kornblut seems to think that this is a suggestion from Novak "that the scrutiny that has focused on which of his sources provided him the name might have been misplaced, and that he might well have figured it out by himself." Nonsense. This is a suggestion from Novak that he knows what Who's Who says about Wilson's wife. But we already knew this. As Kornblut points out, he cited the same fact in a column back in October of 2003.

In neither of these instances did Novak imply that he got Plame's name from Who's Who. In the October, 2003 column, he merely used the Who's Who entry to deflect blame from himself for publishing a name that was "no secret":
Republican activist Clifford May wrote Monday, in National Review Online, that he had been told of her identity by a non-government source before my column appeared and that it was common knowledge. Her name, Valerie Plame, was no secret either, appearing in Wilson's "Who's Who in America" entry.

The August 1 column mentions Who's Who only to ridicule ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow's statement that he asked Novak not to use Plame's name. As Novak rightly says, once he had written that it was Wilson's wife who suggested his trip to Niger, withholding her name would be pointless:
[Ex-CIA spokesman Bill 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."
In fact, the Kornblut article is a thorough misreading of the August 1 column. There is nothing in it to suggest that Novak didn't get Plame's name directly from one of his sources. And, more important, there is nothing in it to suggest that Novak is even addressing the question of where he got the name. His issue is rather with Bill Harlow's grand jury testimony to the effect that Novak published his original column even after Harlow told him it was factually incorrect and that Plame's name should not be revealed.

It is likely that Novak is correct about the first of these points: Harlow seems to have claimed that Novak wrote, incorrectly, that Plame "authorized" Wilson's trip to Niger, while in fact Novak only wrote that Plame "suggested" sending Wilson.

On the second point, however, it's hard to credit Novak's logic. He appears to suggest that Harlow had no problem with Novak's revealing that Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA on Weapons of Mass Destruction, but instead objected only to his revealing her name. This is simply impossible to believe, especially if Wilson's wife's name was as easy to discover as Novak himself says it was. Surely Harlow's only logical objection would have been to the publication of information sufficient to reveal her identity, whether or not this information included her name. And surely Novak must realize this.

Novak claims that "I never would have written those sentences if . . .anybody . . . from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody." However, he does quote Harlow as having told him that "exposure of [Plame's] name might cause 'difficulties.' " Even if Harlow stopped short of the word "danger", Novak must certainly have realized what kind of "difficulties" might follow from the exposure of a CIA agent, and must have known that identifying a CIA agent as "Joseph Wilson's wife" was as good as naming her. If he did not, his basic competence is in question; if he did, his morality is.

The same considerations, of course, apply to whoever gave Novak the story in the first place, whether or not the words "Valerie Plame" were part of the package.