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Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen

Posted: July 7, 2005 10:34 PM

Time for Robert Novak to Feel Some Chill

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 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 Judith Miller to jail is about a classic whistler blower: diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV. 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.

Originally published at my weblog, PressThink, where I have more links and commentary.