Novak at the center of the storm
WASHINGTON -- Columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak said Wednesday he resents the suggestion he was used as a pawn to reveal the identity of a CIA operative in order to retaliate against her husband, who criticized President Bush's evidence supporting claims that Iraq attempted to buy material for nuclear weapons.
Novak appeared on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports" Wednesday.
BLITZER: He's at the center of this storm, the controversy that is raging here in Washington. The naming of the CIA operative appeared in his column back on July 14. That popular columnist syndicated across the country by The Chicago Sun-Times. And he's well-known, of course, to our CNN viewers as the co-host of "Crossfire."
Joining me now for an exclusive conversation, the veteran journalist, is my colleague, Bob Novak. Bob, thanks very much for joining us. Let's talk about this. What made you decide to go out, first of all, and write about former Ambassador Joe Wilson?
NOVAK: Former Ambassador Wilson broke the secrecy that a retired diplomat, unknown, had gone to Niger in the year 2002 to investigate whether the Iraqis tried to buy yellow cake, uranium from Niger.
BLITZER: You mean when he wrote that op-ed page article in The New York Times?
NOVAK: New York Times ... That was on a Sunday morning. 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 and, also, had been a high-ranking official in the Clinton White House, who had contributed politically to Democrats -- some Republicans, but mostly Democrats -- why was he being selected?
I asked this question to a senior Bush administration official, and he said that he believed that the assignment was suggested by an employee at the CIA in the counterproliferation office who happened to be Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. I then called another senior official of the Bush administration, and he said, Oh, you know about that? And he confirmed that that was an accurate story. I then called the CIA. They said that, to their knowledge, he did not -- that the mission was not suggested by Ambassador Wilson's wife -- but that she had been asked by her colleagues in the counterproliferation office to contact her husband. So she was involved.
BLITZER: Because he was a former ambassador in Gabon, he knew that part of Africa, and that's, presumably, why they wanted to send him on this mission.
NOVAK: I'm not going into motives. I thought it was strange because he is not an expert in counterproliferation. He had not been ambassador to Niger, he had served in Niger at one time.
BLITZER: But he was a senior on African affairs at the [National Security Council] under Clinton?
NOVAK: Under Clinton, that's correct. So that was the story I wrote, was about the details of Ambassador Wilson's mission, which created a great storm. And in the sixth paragraph of a 10-paragraph story I mentioned that two senior administration officials had said it was suggested by his wife, who worked at the CIA.
BLITZER: Now, in today's column, I think you wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Post, appearing as well, you wrote this: "He asked me not to use her name," referring to a CIA official, "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." How much did they press you and say, you know what, this is really a problem? Please don't use her name. She's a covert operative.
NOVAK: It was what I call a weak request. In journalism we are asked not to use things constantly. I'm sure you have been. Don't use that, Wolf. I was asked by the CIA official not to use it. He did not, at any point, say her life was in danger. He did not press it. I thought it was in the nature of a pro forma request after a conversation in which he had detailed Ambassador Wilson's mission, explained to me that the mission -- that there was never a written report. A lot of people don't even know that. There was no written report.
NOVAK: ... oral report. And that it was not very convincing, not a very convincing report. But it was -- and at the end of that suggested that I not -- asked me, requested that [I] not use the name.
BLITZER: But the notion, even that she would never be able to have a foreign assignment, shouldn't that alone have been enough to maybe give you pause?
NOVAK: Oh, no. Let's read what I said, Wolf, not what you said.
BLITZER: This is in today's column.
NOVAK: Yes, read what I said.
BLITZER: "He asked me not to use her name saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment."
NOVAK: Yes. That was not anything -- whether I wrote anything or not, he said she would never be given a foreign assignment. That was a fact that she had moved on to a different phase of her career. It was not because of anything I was writing.
BLITZER: ... this would only cause her difficulties? That's what they said to you?
NOVAK: Difficulties if she was traveling abroad, I guess, on vacation or something. But they said she would not be given a foreign assignment. I thought that was a very weak request, let me repeat. And the editor of The Washington Post, Fred Hyatt, said in an editorial as well that if the request had been made by the CIA not to put this information in for the fear of the safety of Mrs. Wilson or anybody else, I certainly would not have used her name. But that request was not made. Now, why was it not made? There's one of two reasons. One possible reason is that it was a mistake by the CIA. They screwed it up. The other reason is they didn't think her life was in danger. I don't know the answer. It's one of the two though.
BLITZER: It is the subject of an investigation right now. The other issue that's coming out is the use of your word "operative" to suggest that you knew she was a covert, clandestine operative as opposed to an analyst. There's been some debate. She's currently an analyst, but according to all the sources we have, she used to be an operative.
NOVAK: Well, I have sources, too. I have sources that tell me that she was never an analyst -- I mean, never an operative. She was never covert. She was never covert. Put it that way. She was never covert. She was always what they call "light covert." That is, she was covered, she was working under the cover of another government agency, but she was not a covert operator. I have been told that by other sources...
NOVAK: But I just want to say that the word operative that I said in today's column, Wolf, was a mistake, using that word on my part. I have called hack politicians operatives if you read my column carefully over 40 years. And it's just kind of a throw-away word. I had no knowledge whether or not she was an operative.
BLITZER: All right, the other issue that's come out is this article that appeared in Newsday, the newspaper on Long Island, July 22 after your July 14 column. The reporters said this. They were following up on your story. "Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. `I didn't dig it out. It was given to me,' he said. `They thought it was significant, they gave me the name, and I used.' "
NOVAK: Now, these reporters made a bad mistake. They said they came to me with the information. I never told them that. And that's not in quotes, is it?
BLITZER: They said that the sources said they -- your sources had come to you...
NOVAK: Yes, but that's not in quotes.
BLITZER: That's not in quotes.
NOVAK: So then they made that up. I never said that. I said I didn't dig it out in the sense I went through the files of the CIA. It was given to me, as I just told you. There's no inconsistency there at all. But that is -- you have to be very careful, Wolf, with these things because they say that the idea that -- they're saying they came to me. They did not come to me.
BLITZER: ... the quote part is correct, "I didn't dig it out. It was given to me."
NOVAK: I just told you it was given to me. I didn't dig it out of the files there. Let me tell you this. There are people putting out stories that the White House was trying to find a pawn to put out this information. They went through six people...
BLITZER: ... to smear Joe Wilson.
NOVAK: Yes. And finally came to me. That's not true. As I have told you in detail this story, nobody came to me. Nobody came to me. I never said that. The story in Newsday is absolutely incorrect. It's not in my quotes. They never came to me. I went to them in reporting that story.
BLITZER: Other reporters are suggesting that they got these calls, but they didn't do anything...
NOVAK: I don't know if they did or not. But I resent -- and I resented it when you said it the other day, I really resented when you said that they went to six people and finally found Novak. That is just not the truth. Nobody came to me with this story. I was reporting on Joe Wilson...
BLITZER: This was your initiative?
BLITZER: All right. Now let's -- speaking of Joe Wilson, he was on "Nightline" last night. And he said, as he has in the past, some very, very derogatory words about Karl Rove, the chief political adviser to the president. Let's listen precisely to what Joe Wilson said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORMER AMBASSADOR JOE WILSON: What I do know or what I have confidence in, based upon what respectable press people in this town have told me, is that a week after the Novak article came out, Karl Rove was still calling around, talking to press people saying Wilson's wife is fair game.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And the suggestion has been made -- and we're not going to ask you to reveal your sources because I know you would never reveal your sources -- that Karl Rove somehow is manipulating this whole thing to get even with Joe Wilson who was critical of the president.
NOVAK: Ambassador Wilson, I'm not going to call him a liar. Certainly, it seems highly improbable that after the story had appeared in print and it was not -- I would like to say that this was a hell of column that rocked Washington. It didn't. It was in the sixth paragraph of a 10-paragraph story. But after it appeared, Mr. Rove, the idea that he would be going around trying to peddle this column after it appeared in print, it doesn't make sense to me. Maybe it did happen, maybe it didn't. I have no information of that. I would like to see the names of the reporters, though, wouldn't you?
BLITZER: Definitely. A lot of people want it a lot more. And I'm sure presumably in the days and weeks to come we'll know a lot more. We're almost out of time. But a couple -- just to wrap a couple things up. Had you known that this information, releasing the name, could have endangered her or her colleagues, you would never have reported this?
NOVAK: No, no. I want to rephrase your question. Had I known. You're saying it would have endangered her and her colleagues. I still don't know that to this day. I will tell you this. If a CIA official said, "You are endangering the life of Mrs. Wilson and her colleagues," I never would have printed it.
BLITZER: But do you have any reason to believe that the source or sources that you spoke to in the administration themselves knew that by giving her name or telling you about her, that this would be causing her any kind of problem?
NOVAK: I really resent that premise that it endangers her life because you're saying if they knew that...
BLITZER: ... they may have thought she was simply an analyst, too.
NOVAK: She might have been. You don't know whether she was and I don't know whether she was. There's no way -- we do not know that fact. I have been told, not by the official sources at the CIA, but the unofficial sources, that she was not a covert operative whose life was in danger.
BLITZER: Because this is significant, as you know, because the law also states that you have to have intent, you have to know that by revealing the identity of a covert agent, you're committing this crime. They may not have known.
NOVAK: Let me say one other thing I had in today's column. The person who gave me the original story, I said it was given in an off-handed way during in this conversation and he was not a partisan gun slinger. I said that. I'm not going to go into more description, but I did feel that the idea that this was some kind of a carefully arranged plot to destroy this woman and her husband, as far as I'm concerned, was nonsense. It didn't happen that way, and this kind of scandal that has perpetrated in Washington is Washington at its worst.
BLITZER: Bob Novak speaking bluntly as he always does. Thanks very much.
NOVAK: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you and good luck.