Closing the Book on NovakGate

Robert Novak’s column yesterday revealed that, before publishing his now-controversial column in which he “outed” Valerie Plame, he get confirmation of her role from Bill Harlow, the CIA public information officer. That makes it pretty clear that Plame’s status with the CIA was far less “covert” than we’d been led to believe.

This more or less closes the book on what I initially dubbed “NovakGate.” It confirms the suspicions that I had nearly three years ago the morning this story broke:

I recall reading the Novak column in question, and didn’t think anything was unusual at the time. The mention of Wilson’s wife comes late in the piece and very casually:

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.

I just naturally assumed “operative” meant something other than “undercover agent,” since CIA presumably has people openly serving as nuclear weapons inspectors and analysts. Further, Wilson himself is described in the piece in a very favorable light,

His first public notice had come in 1991 after 15 years as a Foreign Service officer when, as U.S. charge in Baghdad, he risked his life to shelter in the embassy some 800 Americans from Saddam Hussein’s wrath. My partner Rowland Evans reported from the Iraqi capital in our column that Wilson showed “the stuff of heroism.”

So any idea that this was a hatchet piece never occured to me and, indeed, still seems rather implausible. Indeed, the idea that Novak, whom I don’t care for as a TV commentator but I respect as a reporter, would knowingly “out” a CIA agent strikes me as far-fetched.

While Novak is vindicated in this matter, however, I strongly disagree with a premise that he defended in yesterday’s column, namely that there are “journalistic privileges under the First Amendment” allowing reporters to “shield sources who have not revealed themselves” even in the face of a judicial warrant in criminal cases. While the government should give great leeway to reporters, recognizing that anonymity is often a condition for getting at the truth, the principle can’t extend to protecting sources who have committed serious crimes. Client-attorney privilege is not absolute; nor should journalistic shield laws.

Unlike many of my conservative brethren, I believe journalists have every right to publish classified information that is leaked to them free from prior restraint. At the same time, however, I believe that journalists are citizens first. A right to publish is not the same as a duty; editors and publishers should very carefully weigh the consequences of publishing national security secrets.

Reporters must, like all other citizens, testify under oath to grand juries investigating criminal conduct. The fact that a reporter might be forced to divulge their sources under the color of law exacts no chilling effect on the press, which remains free to publish true facts.

To the extent that the potential for being revealed in a judicial proceeding makes sources less likely to go to the press with classified information, so much the better. Revealing classified information to those not authorized to receive it is, after all, a crime. When those entrusted with state secrets reveal them to the press, they might well jeopardize our intelligence gathering and cost us a vital means of discovering terrorist plots. Or, it may turn out, there was little harm done. Regardless, running to the press with classified information is a crime.

While taking measures to assure harmful or criminal conduct is not being done by our government is a good thing, “whistleblowers” do not have carte blanche. For one thing, most of them have a personal agenda driving their revelations. More importantly, there are numerous institutional avenues for taking concerns to appropriate authorities. Certainly, the “senior NSA officials” who put the data mining program on the front pages had those avenues — and could have gotten congressional investigation going much faster than the year the New York Times sat on the story.

The essence of our information security system is that cleared personnel with a need to know are able to get information necessary to do their jobs and that they are trusted not to reveal it to those, even with a high level clearance, without an operational need to know. Investigating those who willingly flout that system is essential to maintaining it