Charting Robert Novak's Role in the Plame Case

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A grand jury investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame has generated multiple subpoenas to reporters and even landed one of them in jail. But the role of conservative columnist Robert Novak, the catalyst of the two-year political scandal, remains a mystery.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It was a column by Robert Novak two years ago that set into motion the events that led to today's indictments of Lewis Libby. It landed a New York Times reporter in jail for 85 days, but Novak hasn't talked much about it. Now new documents offer a tantalizing glimpse into his action in this CIA case. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Robert Novak wasn't the first journalist who learned about Valerie Plame from White House officials, but in a column on July 14th, 2003, Novak cited two senior administration officials to say Valerie Plame had been involved in recommending her husband, Joseph Wilson, for a CIA fact-finding trip to Africa to see whether Iraq had sought nuclear weapons there. It wasn't an extensive reference but it turned out to be a critical one. Plame's work for the CIA was classified at the time. Ambassador Wilson had just emerged to blast President Bush's justification for invading Iraq.

In papers filed today in federal court, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald says Libby was approached by another White House official a few days later. An unnamed Official A had spoken to Novak. Fitzgerald wrote, `Libby was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson's wife.' Novak repeatedly declined to comment for this story, but Official A turns out to be Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff who's the president's top political strategist. That word comes from an adviser to Rove who spoke to NPR on condition he not be named.

Here was the conservative columnist back in June on CNN, where he was a paid commentator. Novak was being questioned by anchor Ed Henry.

(Soundbite of June news broadcast)

Mr. ED HENRY (Anchor): In general, have you cooperated with investigators in this case?

Mr. ROBERT NOVAK (Reporter): I can't answer any questions about this case at all.

Mr. HENRY: OK. Why is it that there are two reporters out there who may go to jail, Bob, but you--it doesn't appear that you're going to go to jail?

Mr. NOVAK: Well, that's what I can't reveal until this case is finished. I hope it's finished soon, and when it does I'm--I agree with Mr. Safire, I will reveal all.

FOLKENFLIK: Longtime friends like Fred Barnes say Novak has made a mark in Washington by revealing juicy political secrets learned from highly placed sources. Barnes is the executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.

Mr. FRED BARNES (Editor, The Weekly Standard): He's the hardest-working person in journalism. Nobody works harder than Bob Novak.

FOLKENFLIK: Both Karl Rove and Lewis Libby spoke with reporters around the time Ambassador Wilson publicly attacked the White House. Rove, who remains under investigation, spoke to Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about Plame, and now Rove is Official A. But just who Novak's other source is remains murky, and Novak hasn't shed much light. Here's how Novak explained his reporting in October 2003 to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

(Soundbite of October 2003 interview)

Mr. NOVAK: On Monday I began to report on something that I thought was very curious. Why was it that Ambassador Wilson, who had no particular experience in weapons of mass destruction and was a sharp critic of the Iraqi policy of President Bush--why was he being selected?

FOLKENFLIK: Novak first came to Washington for the Associated Press nearly four decades ago and then joined The Wall Street Journal. A syndicated column and regular television gigs followed. As Fred Barnes says, `Novak's cultivated a memorable shtick on TV with a glower and a laugh.'

Mr. BARNES: Well, he's developed a persona, you know, the prince of darkness, and he loves it. You know, the guy that--he always wants tax cuts and he doesn't want to funnel any money to the poor and so on.

FOLKENFLIK: Novak's longtime colleagues like Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, say his position as a fixture within conservative circles is well-earned. But Leubsdorf says he understands some reservations about Novak's work.

Mr. CARL LEUBSDORF (Dallas Morning News): Some critics have said, from time to time, that his columns sometimes reflect the views of his sources, and there's a bit of truth in that, I think.

FOLKENFLIK: Since that summer Novak has offered somewhat cryptic explanations of his actions. He said he would never give up a confidential source but also that he wouldn't have to go to jail to protect his sources. Novak has said he's never been subpoenaed, but lawyers involved in aspects of the case tell NPR they believe he has cooperated closely with special prosecutor Fitzgerald.

Novak stormed off a live CNN program in August, cursing at Democratic strategist James Carville after being told he'd be questioned again about his role in the case. Novak's current affiliation with CNN remains unclear, but friends say he's busy on a new project, his memoirs, and presumably on that other story, the one he promised will reveal all. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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