Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003  

Novak is now mustering a defense. One might call it "minimizing a defense"--that appears to be the strategy.

"To protect my own integrity and credibility, I would like to stress three points. First, I did not receive a planned leak. Second, the CIA never warned me that the disclosure of Wilson's wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else. Third, it was not much of a secret."

On the way, he's releasing ink and trying to cloud the waters (pardon the bad, mangled metaphor). Thus, the whole thing is a "massive political assualt" on President Bush by Wilson and "the relentless Sen. Charles Schumer of New York." Meanwhile, it really wasn't secret. "It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA." And finally, Novak dissembles on the "operative" v. "analyst" question: "However, an unofficial source at the Agency says she has been an analyst, not in covert operations." (Never mind that it was Novak who used the word "operative," not Wilson, who's made the leak "his life's work.")

I quoted from the NewsHour last night--but only half. The other part of that discussion involved Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Anticipating this defense, he paints a different version of Novak's handling of the story.

If you are going to get involved in something like this where you're bumping up against breaking the law, as a journalist you have a civil disobedience test you have to meet. What's the public good of this story? What's the -- balanced against what's the danger to the people involved publishing the story. The third part of the test is, is it necessary in telling the story to do this or is there another way to do it, do you need to divulge this person's name, in other words, to convey the information you think is of the public interest.

This doesn't meet any one of those three tests. It's not of overriding public interest. Novak may be really just an instrument of Republican revenge here. Whatever the public good is of the story is far overwhelmed by the danger to this woman and her network of operatives. And it's gratuitous. You could have told the story without her name.

So where does that leave Novak? In my mind, he acted unethically but not illegally. By his own admission, he wasn't the only one who knew about the story. Yet he was the only one to report it. Novak is simulateously posing as an insider and an innocent--he want access to confidential information, but he doesn't want to be held accountable for knowing what it is. All of that strikes me as a pretty serious breach of ethics.

But is it illegal? Based on the information available, administration officials were doing there best to leak the info. Presumably, the story was getting out. Novak claims he wasn't a tool of the government, but that may be his best argument. It seems clear that a crime was committed--Plame was an undercover CIA operative, and Novak "outed" her. Crime. So the question is who's culpable. The crime here was the administration's--they wanted to get back at Wilson. This didn't come from Novak's brain--it came from someone's inside the White House.

posted by Jeff | 9:34 AM |
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