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July 7, 2005

Time for Robert Novak to Feel Some Chill

"As the judge said Judy Miller can escape her jail cell by finally choosing to talk, so could Novak restore his column and TV appearances by finally talking about his part in the story. Novak is said to have lots of friends in the press. Friends would let him know the time is here."

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 Wilson’s wife suggested sending him 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. — Robert Novak, “Mission to Niger,” July 14, 2003.

I, for one, have had it with Robert Novak. And if all the journalists who are talking today about “chilling effects” and individual conscience mean what they say, they will, as a matter of conscience and pride, start giving Novak himself the big chill.

That means if you’re a Washington columnist maybe you don’t go on CNN with him— until he explains. If you’re a newspaper editor you consider suspending his column until he explains. If you’re Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, you take him off the air until he decides to go on the air and explain. If you’re John Barron, editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, you suspend your columnist (with pay, I should think); and if Barron won’t do it then publisher John Cruickshank should.

If Novak says he can’t talk until the case is over, then he shouldn’t be allowed to publish or opine on the air until the case is over. He should know the rage some of his colleagues feel. Claiming to be “baffled” by Novak’s behavior may have been plausible for a while. With reporter Judith Miller now sitting in jail, and possibly facing criminal charges later, “baffled” is sounding lame.

After the decision yesterday someone asked Bill Keller, top editor of the New York Times, if this was really a whistle-blowing case. Keller answered: “you go to court with the case you’ve got.” I understood what he meant, but that answer was incomplete.

For in certain ways the case that sent Judy Miller to jail is about a classic whistler blower: diplomat Joseph C. Wilson. Those “two senior administration officials” in Novak’s column had a message for him: stick your neck out and we’ll stick it to your wife. (They did: her career as an operative is over.) Might that have some chilling effect?

We’re not entirely in the dark about how the conversation might have gone. Yesterday Walter Pincus of the Washington Post posted this recollection:

On July 12, 2003, an administration official, who was talking to me confidentially about a matter involving alleged Iraqi nuclear activities, veered off the precise matter we were discussing and told me that the White House had not paid attention to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA-sponsored February 2002 trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. I didn’t write about that information at that time because I did not believe it true that she had arranged his Niger trip. (The Post article he did write months later.)

Pincus didn’t take the “information,” Novak did. Why? Did it occur to Novak that this could be retribution against a critic of the White House? Pincus thought the leaker was “practicing damage control by trying to get me to stop writing about Wilson.” What did Novak think? The New York Times in an editorial today:

It seemed very possible that someone at the White House had told Mr. Novak about Ms. Plame to undermine Mr. Wilson’s credibility and send a chilling signal to other officials who might be inclined to speak out against the administration’s Iraq policy. At the time, this page said that if those were indeed the circumstances, the leak had been “an egregious abuse of power.” We urged the Justice Department to investigate.

Tell me: how can journalists say with a straight face that they are concerned for future whistle blowers if one of their own, Robert Novak, together with sources made possible an act of retribution against an actual whistle blower?

We do not know enough to say of Novak, “he should be the one in jail.” But we do know enough to keep him off the air and the op ed pages until he makes a fuller statement. (Times editorial: “Like almost everyone, we are baffled by his public posture.”) It may be that he betrayed the principles for which his colleague Judy Miller is in jail. The editor who decides to drop Novak’s column until such time as he explains himself would be listening to the voice of professional conscience, in my view.

As the judge said Judy Miller can escape her jail cell by finally choosing to talk, so could Novak restore his column and TV appearances by finally talking about his part in the story. Novak is said to have lots of friends in the press. Friends would let him know the time is here.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

Chris Lehmann in the New York Observer:

Sentiment against Mr. Novak is now so heated that N.Y.U. journalism chairman and Pressthink blogger Jay Rosen recently called for the rather poetic punishment of a profession-wide public shaming of the alleged administration toady: declining TV appearances with him, pulling the plug on his syndicated column, and generally treating him like the Lee J. Cobb character in 12 Angry Men, loudly and ineffectually seeking to foist his boorish scheme of right and wrong on an indifferent world as his jury mates one by one turn their backs on him.

Just what this case needs: more public sanctimony!… Consider the irony, for a moment: legitimate outrage over a journalist’s imprisonment for disobeying a grand jury results in a demand for a different journalist to disobey a grand jury so that he can provide an explanation almost certain to be self-serving and unsatisfying anyway

He got my title wrong. I am no longer chair. And there is no legal prohibition against Novak telling us he made a deal and testified, then revealing what he said.

“Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation …” Michael Isikoff gets a leak from Time, Inc. (July 10) It’s Matthew Cooper’s e-mail about his conversation with Rove. That it was leaked from Time to Newsweek (surely a first in the history of those two rivals) says almost as much as the contents of the e-mail itself.

Miller is in prison to protect a right that Novak appears to have finagled. Writing at, The Nation’s David Corn takes you on a fascinating fact-filled (but ultimately conjecture-strewn) tour of what happened with Novak, Fitzgerald and his sources. “He leaves the door wide open for speculation,” Corn writes. “So let’s accept the invitation.” Also see his response to the Isikoff story.

Tom Maguire has a response and more links: Just Say ‘No’ To Novak? Highly informative. Also informative is this Salon article by David Paul Kuhn on the Karl Rove connection. He notes that Rove was fired from the elder Bush’s ‘92 reelection campaign for leaking information to Novak.

Atrios has more on Novak (and Miller) and says the shunning should have happened two years ago. “But why would they start now?”

Doc Searls says about the outing of Palme: “That this was a political act, and not merely a journalistic one, is beyond dispute.” I agree. (True of Wilson’s actions too.) He also points to this potent Daniel Drezner post from two years ago, very relevant today.

I highly recommend Matt Welch’s Shield Journalism, Not Journalists at the Reason magazine site. That is my view, as well. The press should not be granting itself rights the public does not have, but expanding its idea of who has “press” rights— card or no card. I am for solutions that protect newsgathering and expand the press.

Explain please. No, I can’t. Bob Novak with host Ed Henry, CNN’s Inside Politics, June 29:

HENRY: Bob, first, what’s your reaction to the Supreme Court saying they would not hear this case?

BOB NOVAK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I deplore the thought of reporters — I’ve been a reporter all my life — going to jail for any period of time for not revealing sources, and there needs to be a federal shield law preventing that as there are shield laws in 49 out of 50 states. But, Ed, I — my lawyer said I cannot answer any specific questions about this case until it is resolved, which I hope is very soon.

HENRY: In general, though, you believe in the principle of keeping the identity secret, of confidential sources. Have you ever revealed the identity of one of your confidential sources?

NOVAK: Well, people know — who have read my column know there have been special case where I have. But the question of being coerced to by the government and being put in prison is, I think, something that should be protected by act of Congress.

HENRY: In general, have you cooperated with investigators in this case?

NOVAK: I can’t answer any questions about this case at all.

Rest here. It gets pretty heated. See also the New York Times article where Novak’s colleagues speak. This Media Matters post on Novak—stonewalling the press—has many key links.

Novak in an October 1, 2003 column returned to the events:

During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA’s counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger. When I called another official for confirmation, he said: “Oh, you know about it.” The published report that somebody in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue.

At the CIA, the official designated to talk to me denied that Wilson’s wife had inspired his selection 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.

Novak’s colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, Carol Marin, on July 1: “Why in the world is New York Times reporter Judith Miller headed to jail next week while my Sun-Times colleague Robert Novak is not?”

Arizona Republic editorial:

Then there is this curious obsession among many commentators with columnist Robert Novak.

Novak, who first revealed Plame as an agent of the CIA, has avoided Fitzgerald’s prosecution, while Cooper and Miller have been hounded by him. Why? Interesting question. If he has cut some invidious deal with the prosecutor, he will deserve condemnation. But the First Amendment advocates complaining about Novak don’t know why he has been spared harassment. They simply seem upset that a columnist friendly to the Bush administration has escaped the threat of jail. Not much of a principle at work there.

Well, William Safire isn’t too thrilled either. On June 29 Safire wrote: “Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources - who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators - managed to get the prosecutor off his back.”

White House Briefing columnist Dan Froomkin at the Washington Post site:

Fitzgerald has been incredibly secretive about the case, where it’s going, and why he’s subpoenaing all these reporters. But being secretive is his job. He’s a prosecutor. And federal law is clear that authorities are not allowed to divulge grand jury testimony.

But the witnesses are under no such constraints. It’s been reported that Fitzgerald has asked witnesses not to talk about the case in public — but that has no legal authority.

Froomkin asks: “Why is everyone keeping Fitzgerald’s secrets for him? Enough!” He has more about who should start talking.

Earlier PressThink: The Downing Street Memo and the Court of Appeal in News Judgment. (June 19, 2005) “News judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren’t news. But if you weren’t news how would anyone know enough about you to contest the ruling? Today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.”

Key exchange on the PBS Newshour: (July 6, 2005)

STEVE CHAPMAN (Chicago Tribune): I think there should be a federal shield law that would limit subpoenas to journalists to cases where the information being sought is critical to the investigation and there’s no other way to get it, and if we had a law like that, it would protect 98 percent of the confidential sources that journalists use, and it would not protect Judith Miller, I’m afraid.

TERENCE SMITH (Newshour): Do you agree it would not protect Judith Miller in this case?

BILL KELLER: I think that’s correct. That’s why I said we’re talking about two separate things. One is the whole realm of what the law ought to provide in the way of protections or does provide, and the other is what happens when you run out of legal protection but you still feel like you have a moral obligation to stick by your promise?

Two days later, this editorial in the Boston Globe, and this columnby Paul Tash in the St. Petersburg Times ignore what Keller said: a Federal shield law would not have protected Miller, who is engaged in an act of civil disobedience. (Globe says: “Judith Miller carried an important journalistic tool with her to jail. Congress should protect Miller, and the national interest” by passing the national shield law. Wrong-o, Globe.)

Daily Howler gets suspicious: “When the press corps’ interests and preferences are at stake, they will issue a blizzard of spin. If you want to know why average people see this gang as a perfumed elite, read through the ludicrous, one-sided work they’re churning about this complex matter.”

Finally, Whiskey Bar’s Billmon (former journalist, now lefty blogger) wanted to “see if I could come up with something more substantial than moral disgust to justify putting Judy Miller behind bars.” But he couldn’t.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 7, 2005 1:23 PM