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Dennis Hans: In (Partial) Praise of Robert Novak

In (Partial) Praise of Robert Novak

By Dennis Hans

As a thoughtful fellow whose politics are a tad left of center, I don’t agree too often with Robert Novak, the staunchly conservative syndicated columnist and CNN talking head. But opinion outlets would be far better places if more members of the punditocracy had Novak’s independent streak and guts.

Before I speak on Novak’s behalf, let me say he deserves to be in hot water today. I take him at his word when he says he believed the CIA officer he outed, Valerie Plame, was a FORMER covert operative and CURRENT analyst, unlikely to return to covert work whether Novak revealed her name or not. I don’t think Novak or the administration officials who leaked her name thought they were revealing classified information that could damage national security and endanger Plame’s foreign contacts and perhaps Plame herself. But Novak could have withheld her name and still made his point in his July 14 column.

The leaks were inspired by a July 6 New York Times column by Plame’s husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who wrote about the now-infamous “16 words” in the 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Wilson explained why he thought it was unlikely that Saddam had done so — and he revealed that the Bush administration had had information undercutting the assertion since March 2002. Wilson wrote that he himself provided it, based on an investigation he conducted in Niger at the behest of the CIA.

That bombshell provoked a broad effort, both overt and covert, to discredit Wilson and downplay the significance of his investigation. On the covert side, anonymous administration officials reportedly called six journalists (not Novak, who got the Plame information in the course of a conversation he initiated) and told them that Wilson was selected for the mission to Niger by the CIA’s counter-proliferation team on the recommendation of Wilson’s wife, who worked on that team. The leakers’ point seemed to be something like this: Before you put too much stock in what Wilson says, you should know that he really wasn’t qualified to conduct a serious investigation. If his CIA wife hadn’t suggested him, no one would have even considered him for the job. Fairness requires that you report this information.

Even if it turns out that Plame played some role in the selection of Wilson, his investigation stands or falls on its merits. From all I’ve read, the particulars of Wilson’s diplomatic career made him an ideal choice to conduct a professional investigation, and that’s just what he conducted. Novak and other critics rarely if ever note that Wilson reached the same judgment as two prior investigations conducted by the U.S. Ambassador to Niger and a four-star general, as well as an analysis by the State Department’s intelligence bureau (INR) completed and delivered to Colin Powell’s office a week before Wilson returned from Niger. All concluded it was highly unlikely, for a host of reasons, that Niger sold uranium to Iraq. The INR also considered the question if Iraq had even sought, let alone bought, uranium from Niger, and concluded this too was highly unlikely.

Traitors In Our Midst?

Partisans who charge Novak and his leakers with treason need to show that they knew Plame worked under cover and INTENDED to endanger her overseas contacts and jeopardize her efforts to protect our security. This seems highly unlikely. Novak raised a legitimate question in his column, though I believe he drew the wrong conclusion. His foolish decision to name Plame seemed motivated solely to add weight to his (misguided) attack on Wilson.

The administration leakers, rather than being traitors, seem to be run-of-the-mill scumbags, trying to sell journalists on a bogus charge of nepotism because they had no valid evidence calling into question Wilson’s performance or integrity, and perhaps because they wanted to discourage others who may have been considering blowing the whistle on other pieces of pre-war propaganda. But the leakers do appear to be guilty of the exceedingly reckless but non-criminal act of revealing a CIA officer’s name without doing the prior research necessary to confirm that there’d be no national-security and personal-security ramifications from the revelation. Perhaps that needs to be made a crime.

A Sleazeball With Redeeming Qualities

Novak can be a nasty character, as illustrated by his attack on Wilson, his longstanding red-baiting of the late, great I.F. Stone, the finest progressive journalist of the fifties and sixties, and other hit jobs Novak has carried out over a long career. I also recall unfondly his support for President Reagan’s murderous Central American policies.

But to a greater degree than most partisan commentators and talking heads, Novak has the guts to speak forcefully when he holds a view that contradicts his ideological or political-party soulmates. Unlike most Republican partisans on the right and Democratic partisans of the center and slightly left of center (the Democratic Party doesn’t have a left wing to speak of, while the Republicans have a sizeable hard-right contingent, starting with the president and the most powerful man in Congress, Tom DeLay), Novak will challenge party dogma on issues of major importance to the leadership.

Novak is far more likely to surprise viewers than other CNN talking heads, such as moderate liberals Paul Begala (for my money, the most effective talking head on TV), and James Carville, moderates Mark Shields and Al Hunt, or conservatives Kate O’Bierne, Tucker Carlson and former Pentagon PR whiz Victoria Clarke. Novak is far more likely to surprise readers of the Washington Post oped page than fellow right-wingers George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Lally Weymouth and Robert Kagan; centrist superhawks Jim Hoagland and Fred Hiatt; and “liberals” whose liberalism stops at the water’s edge, such as E.J. Dionne and Richard Cohen.

(The prolonged illness of Mary McGrory leaves the Post’s oped page without one foreign-policy liberal, let alone progressive. One can only presume that the Post’s hawkish owners like it that way. The paper could give regular columns to Phyllis Bennis and Stephen Zunes to balance Krauthammer and Will, but it prefers to “balance” rightwing hawks with centrist hawks.)

Here’s the difference between Novak’s flashes of independence and those of Dionne and Cohen: When the latter two cross party lines, chances are it’s to join in a popular parade — e.g., the push for war in Iraq. Novak, on the other hand, will go against the grain even if it means risking a torrent of abuse and the questioning of his patriotism.

Novak Punctures the Prague Connection

I’ve been reminded of Novak’s admirable independence in recent days while researching an article on how 65-70 percent of the public has long been under the false impression that Saddam Hussein was probably or definitely involved in the 9-11 terror attacks.

The answer is a lot more complicated than “Mostly because President Bush repeatedly made vague insinuations without actually saying so,” or “Vice President Cheney kept saying that it’s pretty well confirmed that an Iraqi agent met in Prague with Mohamed Atta, though we can’t say for certain that they discussed the 9-11 plot” — to paraphrase common explanations in recent commentary.

Each of those explanations played a part, but so too did dishonest, possibly bribed Czech officials, whose false confirmations of the meeting launched the story; prominent, ubiquitous neocon advisers to the Pentagon (Richard Perle, James Woolsey and Ken Adelman), who trumpeted the Prague Connection on oped pages and over the airwaves; influential but demented New York Times columnist William Safire, who echoed the assertions of the neocons and presented the meeting as established fact; the absurdly credulous reporting of the Times’ John Tagliabue and Patrick E. Tyler (Tyler, like equally credulous Judith Miller, was a “star” in former editor Howell Raines’ star system); and the general laziness and incompetence of much of the mainstream news media.

There were exceptions to the overall pathetic performance of the mainstream media. Among those who did good work were Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and the Times’ Chris Hedges and Donald G. McNeil Jr. But the best of the bunch was Robert Novak. Early on, he exposed the Prague Connection as a necessary but bogus tool to win public support for an attack on Iraq motivated by reasons unrelated to 9-11. He poured cold water on the first accusations a month after 9-11, then demolished the Connection in May 2002 column.

In the October 15, 2001 column “No Iraqi connection” ( ) Novak wrote:

Lord Robertson, NATO's secretary general, on his visit to Washington last week privately and individually briefed U.S. senators he has known since his days as British defense minister during the Kosovo war. He told them there is no evidence -- "not a scintilla," as quoted by one senator -- linking Iraq with the Sept. 11 attack on America.

That confirms what intelligence sources have told me. The relentless investigation of the terrorist assault has developed massive evidence pointing to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. No comparable links to Iraq have been found. The Iraqi connection, say these sources, is a matter of speculation. If nothing has been uncovered now, it is unlikely there ever will be compelling proof. . . .

The principal justification for assaulting Iraq is the need to prevent Saddam from wielding weapons of mass destruction. Since Iraq does not have nuclear capacity and chemical weapons are not a threat, the concern is biological warfare. Here, too, there is no evidence. [end of column excerpt]

That is a sober assessment of the Iraqi non-threat, one that looks mighty accurate from the vantage point of October 2003. It’s the type of assessment you rarely if ever heard from a CNN or Washington Post “liberal,” who even if they shared that assessment would likely have been too scared to say so, not wishing to be falsely branded as soft on America’s enemy-of-the-month. Novak, perhaps because of his unimpeachable hard-right credentials, had no such fear.

Now here’s a long excerpt from Novak’s May 13, 2002 column, “No meeting in Prague” ( ):

I asked the secretary of defense to confirm or deny whether suicide hijacker Mohammed Atta met an Iraqi secret service operative in Prague and then returned to the U.S. to die in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I don't know whether he did or didn't," Rumsfeld replied.

In those eight words, the defense chief confirmed published reports that there is no evidence placing the presumed leader of the terrorist attacks in the Czech capital, with or without Iraqi spymaster Ahmed al-Ani. His alleged presence in Prague is the solitary piece of evidence that could link Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime to the carnage at the World Trade Center.

Rumsfeld followed his terse response to my Atta question with an explanation of why it really doesn't matter. A connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, he made clear, is not necessary to justify U.S. military action against Iraq to remove Saddam from power. The cause for war is alleged development of weapons of mass destruction by the Baghdad regime.

Why, then, do ardent attack-Iraq advocates outside the government -- William Safire, Kenneth Adelman, James Woolsey -- cling to the reality of the imagined meeting in Prague? Because President Bush will be alone in the world if he orders the attack on Iraq without a casus belli tied to Sept. 11.

It is impossible to prove whether Atta was or was not in Prague in April 2001 as first claimed last October by Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, but these are the facts: Atta definitely did not travel under his own name back and forth from the Czech Republic. The 9/11 terrorists always traveled in the open. For Atta to have used an assumed name would be a radically different method of operation. The sole evidence for the Prague meeting is the word of Czech officials, who are now divided and confused.

The CIA does not want to be dragged into public debate with New York Times columnist Safire, and its officials insist that "we don't have a dog in that fight." In truth, however, cool-headed analysts at Langley see no evidence whatever of the Prague meeting and in their gut believe it did not take place.

Is there evidence of any other Iraqi connection to 9/11? "I don't discuss intelligence information," Rumsfeld replied. In fact, there is none. . . .

There is justifiable belief in the White House, the Pentagon and even the State Department that the world -- not to mention Iraq -- will be better and safer without Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But that does not justify to the world the overthrowing of a government.

That is why ace reporter Bill Safire writes column after column insisting that the Prague meeting took place. That is also why national security expert Ken Adelman insisted April 29 on CNN's "Crossfire" that Atta, "went 7,000 miles to meet with one of the Iraq intelligence officers in Prague." Even if it never happened, the meeting is essential to justify a U.S. attack on Iraq.

[end of column excerpt]

In that May 2002 column, Novak made Rumsfeld, Safire and Adelman look like fools. In so doing, he made mincement of a highly effective propaganda theme near and dear to the heart of an administration Novak himself supports. How many other conservative columnists would have the skill to pull that off or the guts to even try?

Yes, over the course of a long, sometimes nasty career, Novak has earned the nickname “Prince of Darkness.” But count me among those who are willing to give this particular devil his due.

*** # # # ***

©2003 by Dennis Hans

- Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” ( ) and “The Disinformation Age” ( He can be reached at

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