The End of Robert Novak

Now that Valerie Plame’s highly covert role is confirmed six ways from Sunday, we’ve learned something very important: either Robert Novak was lying over the past week when he kept saying he’d been told she was an “analyst” and that her identity “wasn’t much of a secret,” [*] or he was being lied to. In either case, it’s time to stop listening to him. Moreover, since it’s obvious that he and the White House have been playing on the same team, one has to wonder why his friends at 1600 Pa. didn’t wave him (and their other friends at NRO), off the track of this obvious red herring.

Surely Plame’s actual status was known to the top people in the White House within days, if not hours, of the appearance of the Novak column, and the David Corn piece about it, in July. And yet they continued to let their friends spin that as an open question. Did the White House, perhaps, prefer to have people, including its own supporters, confused?

And will the journalists other than Novak, including bloggers, who have been pushing the Administration line over the past week now express resentment at having been so used and deceived? If not, some people more censorious than I might draw unfavorable inferences about their actual intentions.

There’s been lots of phoomphering about journalistic ethics in the past week, most of it assuming that a reporter’s promise to a source not to divulge the source’s identity holds even if it turns out that the source was using the reporter to tell lies, anonymously, to the public. That’s one way to read the rules, though not the only way.

But there’s no doubt about the ethics of what Novak has been doing: he did a hit-piece on an Administration enemy in the face the fact, known to him, that in doing so he was revealing confidential information about a CIA officer’s identity (even if you believe him that his CIA sources only discouraged him a little bit, he makes it clear that he knew that he was printing official secrets) and then he has deceived his readers in order to protect the wrongdoers.

Here’s my proposal, then: the papers that carry his column, starting with the Washington Post, should stop carrying it, and should say so, and say why. Either they’re happy to have their papers used to compound felonious acts of political revenge that also damage the national security, or they’re not. Why should the media continue to be the only unaccountable players in the political game?

Even if you think that Novak made an honest mistake, it was a horrible mistake, and he’s followed it up by acting dishonestly. Time for him to go.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: