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The Novak Affair 

How I broke the CIA-leak story, and why nobody noticed

Thursday, Oct 9 2003
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I fought the Republican spin machine, and the Republican spin machine won.

The battlefield was a Fox News Channel studio. I had been booked to discuss my new book (plug, plug: The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception), but I was also told I would be talking about the Wilson-CIA-leak affair. That was natural, for (plug, plug) I was the first journalist to report that a July 14 piece by conservative columnist Robert Novak was possible evidence of a possible White House crime. In that article, Novak, citing “senior administration officials,” disclosed that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was a CIA operative. Wilson had challenged the administration on its Iraq policy — particularly its use of the (now infamous and still unproven) claim that Saddam Hussein had been uranium shopping in Niger — and the column seemed to be an administration effort to undermine or punish Wilson. The leakers also may have broken a federal law prohibiting the identification of covert officers. I noted that in The Nation two days after the Novak column appeared. But the leak did not become major news until two months later, when the CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate the White House.

The White House and its Republican compatriots then scrambled to control the damage. GOP talking points whizzed throughout town. The primary goal of the Bush defenders has been to depict the scandal as no more than a political tussle. They have questioned its significance. (Maybe Wilson’s wife was merely a secretary at the CIA, said Crossfire’s Tucker Carlson, after it had been reported she was a counter-proliferation officer.) And they have maligned Wilson in an ugly blame-the-victim campaign. They declared — what do you know? — that Wilson was a partisan Democrat and that he was too enthusiastically calling attention to the scandal. (Wilson, who had been a career diplomat, and his wife have mostly contributed to Democrats, but they did give money to Bush’s primary campaign in 2000.) One Republican aide told a reporter that the GOP had concocted a “slime and defend” strategy.

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I ran smack into the Republican dissembling when I found myself on Fox News facing Representative Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who is chair of the House Republican Leadership. The moderator began with him. As an exercise in spin dissection, it is worth closely examining his opening statement:

“The whole thing is strange to me . . . The pieces don’t fit together . . . What would be the motive in the first place for someone in the Bush administration to have done that? . . . You have to be pretty cynical to say that this was something done at the highest levels, which is what is being alleged . . . I’m not sure why it’s coming up now except for the fact that there are a lot of Democrats — particularly those running for president — who are desperate for an issue . . . They are concerned because the stock market just posted its second quarterly gain in three and a half years, because the economy is growing much faster than people thought it would.”

How many disingenuous remarks can you spot in his comments? Here’s a clue: Count the sentences. Portman tried to dismiss the controversy as too bizarre to be true. He claimed that there was no motivation for the leak, almost suggesting it didn’t really happen, and that only a jaded soul could suspect the leak came from the top ranks of the administration. Yet there were plenty of motives. Take your pick. The leakers could have been trying to smack Wilson for criticizing the administration, attempting to intimidate others who might consider speaking out, or endeavoring to discredit the February 2002 trip Wilson had made to Niger for the CIA as no more than the result of nepotism. And one need not be a cynic to point an accusing finger at the “highest levels.” It was Novak who said his sources were “senior” officials. Later, the Washington Post reported that, according to a “senior administration official,” two “top White House officials” had called reporters to spread word of Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection.

And was this in the headlines now because Democratic presidential candidates were worried about a still-jobless economic turnaround? No, it was because the CIA — not the Democrats — had asked for a criminal investigation that would cover senior White House officials.

I tried to make these points. Before I was done, the host wanted to move on, and she said, “I have to ask a couple of things about Joe Wilson.” The scandal, I replied, is not about Wilson, it is about a possible felonious White House effort to target a critic.

Portman then piped up: “How was this discrediting Mr. Wilson? Using common sense . . . how does it discredit someone?” He was deploying one of the chief tools of spin — repeat, repeat, repeat — as he reinforced his earlier claim that there was no reason for the leak. He went on, “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. Who knows whether it happened or not?” More weasel words, for there was a leak; it happened. And Portman continued his roll: “But to ascribe all these political motives on one side and then to say that Joe Wilson and the Democrats and the others who are fanning the flame of this thing don’t have any political motives seems to me to be not balanced, not fair . . . I know the Democrats are desperate to find something here and I just don’t see it.”

 

Bravo. Of course, Democrats are eager to capitalize on the scandal. And a damn-mad Wilson is crying for justice and doing all he can to keep the case alive. (Wouldn’t you?) But this has no bearing on the action in question. The issue is not who’s screaming about the leak but who did it. Yet if Portman and the Republicans can succeed in presenting the controversy as another one of those same-old bitter face-offs between D’s and R’s — creating a moral equivalency between the leakers and the complainants — they win. Their aim is to exploit the public’s (justifiable) cynicism toward Washington and to battle to an it’s-all-politics draw. This is a good strategy — as long as no indictments materialize.

How did I respond to these sly comments? I didn’t. Time was up. The congressman had been granted the first word and the last. And I am sure to many viewers it appeared as if the Wilson-leak scandal was just the latest fodder for the never-

ending food fight in Washington. With his disingenuous rhetoric, Portman had gained the advantage. After all, it’s hard to look clean while contending with flying Jell-O. And I never got the chance to discuss my new book about the deceptive ways of the Bush crowd. At least, I picked up material for the paperback edition.

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