Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Questions and answers about the nation’s hot new scandal.

Q: Robert Novak wrote the column exposing Valerie Plame as a CIA employee three months ago. It became big news last week. How come nobody cared for so long?

A: If you go online and try to read everything various bloggers have been writing about Novak’s column since July you’ll be reading for weeks. New media got right on the story. Old media didn’t. But the CIA finally asked the Justice Department to conduct a criminal investigation, and old media had something they could sink their teeth into.

This is an old-fashioned Watergate-style scandal about unscrupulous nincompoops in high places. Every editor confounded by how to play the lies and distortions peddled to justify a war in Iraq that might have been a good idea regardless can go to town on this one.

Q: Two people Novak called “senior administration officials” leaked to him, and naturally Novak has clammed up and won’t say who. Is this something like the Mafia code of silence?

A: Yes. Journalists call it the right of “reporter’s privilege” and happily remind us that without it whistle-blowers wouldn’t come forward and corruption would run riot.

Q: What do the courts call it?

A: The last thing we heard from the courts was a laugh. Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote an opinion this summer that said that at least in federal cases there’s no such thing as reporter’s privilege.

Q: Wasn’t that the case where Abdon Pallasch and another Sun-Times reporter were writing a book about an FBI informant who ratted out a Real IRA leader?

A: Right.

Q: And when the informant testified against the IRA guy in a trial in Dublin the defense attorneys demanded the notes from the reporters’ interviews with the informant? And a federal judge said to turn them over? And the reporters were ready to go to jail instead, but their lawyers said to cooperate, because if they didn’t the Seventh Circuit would probably come down with an opinion that would be bad for reporter’s privilege?

A: You got it.

Q: But Posner wrote an opinion anyway just because he felt like it. And it was very bad for reporter’s privilege.

A: Exactly.

Q: Here’s what puzzles me. According to an article Pallasch wrote last week on Novak, it’s “rare for journalists to be jailed for refusing to divulge sources who leak them classified information.” Washington attorney Bob Bennett told Palasch, “I think it is most unlikely he would ever be compelled to reveal the source.”

A: Probably true.

Q: So Pallasch almost goes to jail in a piddling case where a lawyer’s on a fishing expedition and there’s probably nothing in the notes and everyone knows it. Novak’s hiding the identity of “senior administration officials” who outed a CIA worker to him, apparently violating federal law and maybe damaging national security–but nobody’s going to try to make Novak talk. Is there some irony here?

A: Yes. Not least because it’s illegal for government employees to whisper classified secrets to a reporter and it isn’t illegal to publish them. On the other hand, if John Ashcroft does decide to go after Novak for what he knows–ha-ha–the place to try to make him come clean will be here in Chicago, where Posner’s opinion is law.

Q: Does Novak have any regrets?

A: One that he admits to. In the July 14 column that got all this started–the one about Joseph Wilson’s CIA mission to Niger in early 2002 to see how true it was that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium there–he wrote that Wilson’s 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.” On October 1 he wrote, “I regret that I referred to her in my column as an ‘operative’–a word I have lavished on hack politicians for more than 40 years.”

Since Novak knew nothing about Plame, it’s hard to see why he’d call her a hack. The language suggests he was getting his spin at the same place he was getting his information.

Q: Apparently Plame was an intelligence analyst working under deep cover, and her career’s ruined. How does Novak justify doing that to her?

A: He says he was simply covering a major narrative point about why Wilson got the assignment to go to Niger. As William Safire put it in the New York Times this Monday, “The columnist called attention to the nepotistic genesis of the C.I.A.’s assignment.”

Q: Well, isn’t that important to know?

A: I guess, though I wish Novak had explained how Plame somehow had the clout to get her husband the assignment.

Novak didn’t really know in July why Wilson got sent to Niger, and he didn’t pretend to. He told us that “two senior administration officials” said Wilson’s wife suggested him. But he also wrote, “The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.” On his own authority, Novak said nothing at all. He has a reputation as a columnist who actually does some reporting. This time someone gave him Plame’s name, and he just threw it out there.

Q: Does he have any other regrets?

A: In his October 1 column he tried to blow off the secret he’d spilled. “How big a secret was it? It was well-known around Washington that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. Republican activist Clifford May wrote Monday, in National Review Online, that he had been told of her identity by a non-government source before my column appeared and that it was common knowledge.”

Joseph Wilson was hardly a household name himself until he wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 6 describing his mission to Niger. But we’re expected to believe it was common knowledge who his wife was and what she did. Well, let’s pretend that’s true. Novak didn’t know it. When a famous Washington pundit says there’s a loop and he’s out of it, that can only be an act of desperation.

Q: But Novak’s a tough, two-fisted, independent pundit. How can anyone accuse him of being a Republican water boy?

A: He plays one on television. He’s the right-wing regular on Crossfire.

Q: Which took up the Valerie Plame scandal last week.

A: Yes. The September 30 transcript shows Novak in the role of cohost offering an overview of the developing story.

Novak: The Justice Department is opening a criminal investigation into the leak that named the wife of a retired diplomat as a CIA employee–that diplomat, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a former Clinton administration official and Democratic campaign contributor who says the White House was behind the leak.

Then he speaks as the journalist who exploited the leak.

Novak: I want to abuse my privilege and take a little personal privilege here, just say that in the column I wrote that has caused all this fuss there’s one bad word in there [operative].

Finally he’s the Republican partisan trivializing the leak after a Democratic guest waxes indigent.

Novak: This is all just politics. You’re trying to create a big political backfire.

Q: A nimble performance. Did anyone on the show ask Novak who told him about Wilson’s wife?

A: Of course. He didn’t say.

Q: And will never have to, thanks to reporter’s privilege.

A: Could be. Though Novak’s performance may help explain why when Judge Posner said there is none, an outraged public didn’t take to the streets in Chicago.

Q: Why would a senior administration official rat out a CIA employee?

A: One of the perks of being a senior administration official is you get to rat out whomever you want to rat out to your favorite reporter, who thanks you for it. Did you see what the Washington Post reported September 28: “Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife….’Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,’ the senior official said of the alleged leak.”

Q: So now we’ve got senior administration officials ratting out senior administration officials.

A: Without anyone knowing who any of them are. Except for the reporters they rat to.

Q: Let me get this straight. Here’s the president trying to find the leaker in his administration even though it sounds like he’s the only one in his administration who doesn’t already know. And here’s the press trying to find out who leaked to the press.

A: Exactly.

Q: Why doesn’t someone just ask?

A: Anyone who knows anything about Washington is saying this is a mystery that will never be solved.

Q: I guess if reporters stopped repeating the dirt they were dished and started naming the senior administration officials who dished it, the repercussions to democracy and the people’s right to know would be staggering.

A: Steve Neal made exactly that point in his ringing defense of Novak in the Sun-Times. Said Neal, “If there weren’t leaks in Washington, there would be no news.”

Q: Doesn’t Novak work for the Sun-Times?

A: It’s his home paper.

Q: And the paper’s sticking by him?

A: The conduct of the Sun-Times has been beyond reproach. Editor & Publisher did a survey and pointed out last week that although most of the country’s 15 biggest papers wrote editorials on the Valerie Plame leak, only one of those papers took a position on whether Novak did the right thing in publishing it.

Q: The Sun-Times?

A: Yup, in an October 1 editorial the paper called “A necessary inquiry for a necessary column.” The editorial said Novak’s July column had “shaken the government” like few things he’d ever written. “Just as we believe whistleblowers such as Wilson should be free from government intimidation and payback–if that is what occurred, and that’s still to be determined–we believe even more fervently that it is the responsibility of journalists to print awkward facts, at times even facts that are passed on to them in violation of the law.”

Q: Awkward facts? Awkward to whom? Does the Sun-Times think Novak outed Wilson’s wife in order to shake the government? It looks a lot more like someone in the government was trying to shake Wilson.

A: It was a stand-up editorial. Don’t expect logic too.

Jazz Bash

Every weekday afternoon from four to seven, Reader jazz critic Neil Tesser hosts Miles Ahead, a jazz show on WSBC (1240 AM) and WCFJ (1470 AM). On Monday, October 13, he’s calling his show “Jazz Howard Hates,” and he’s featuring musicians the Tribune’s Howard Reich has ripped in print.

A former Hot Type columnist, Tesser’s a friend of mine. He’s no friend of Reich’s. “I’ve wanted to do this for a while now,” Tesser says. “He’s written a lot of hurtful, gratuitously nasty things about musicians I care about and who deserve better treatment. It’s one thing to say you didn’t like the performance and another to say this person had no right to be on the Jazz Showcase stage.”

Tesser goes on, “I’ll say, ‘Here’s what Howard said about this’ and read something. And then, ‘Here’s the music. You make up your own mind.’ It’s a way of saying the emperor doesn’t have much in the way of clothing.” Some of the performers he expects to air include Chicago singer Jackie Allen, cornetist Nat Adderley, jazz violinist Johnny Frigo, and 19-year-old pianist Taylor Eigsti, whom Reich described in a review last July as a “struggling young man” whose sidemen rendered his “piano noodlings irrelevant, by comparison.”

Reich says in response that Tesser, a past president of the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, “is part of the musicians’ community officially, in that sense, and therefore more of a promoter than what I do here, which is criticism. But I’m flattered that he reads me so closely–as others do.”

Tesser says he decided to go ahead with “Jazz Howard Hates” after reading a Reich review last month of the Chicago Jazz Festival. Reich wrote, “Imagine the sound of jazz broadcast on AM radio and heard on a car radio, and you have a rough idea of the way live bands project at Grant Park’s Petrillo Music Shell.”

Tesser felt gratuitously insulted.

News Bites

Washington’s hot new scandal might be a little too complex for training-wheels journalism. On October 1, a day when the Tribune carried two articles, a John Kass column, and an editorial on the Valerie Plame affair–a total of more than 3,000 words–the paper’s RedEye edition ran a 42-word brief.

RedEye is advertising in CTA trains again, this time to flog its tie-in with Metromix and to distinguish itself from Red Streak. Some days the differences can be hard to find. For example, last Thursday both Reds published a front page topped by the headline “This Stinks” (the story was about the garbage strike) and anchored at the bottom by a spectacular picture of the Cubs’ Kenny Lofton on his back, his legs spread and his butt staring smack at the camera. This was less of a coincidence than you’d think. Some adults believe the best way to address children is with a greatly limited vocabulary.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.