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Jason Leopold: Robert Novak & the Perfect Stranger

Robert Novak and the Perfect Stranger

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 29 August 2006

By his own admission, syndicated columnist Robert Novak broke the news that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA to a perfect stranger on July 8th, 2003, the same day he spoke to Richard Armitage and Karl Rove about Plame.

In an online chat on Fox News's web site last month, a woman named "Judy" asked Novak to provide readers with more details about a run-in he had with a man he met near the vicinity of the White House on July 8, 2003, the day he was told about Plame's CIA status.

"I foolishly answered questions about the case by a stranger who stopped me on the streets of Washington," Novak said in response to a question about why he spoke to the person on the street. "He turned out to be a friend of Wilson who immediately went to Wilson's office to report after our conversation. Some people think this was set up by Wilson, but I have no evidence of this."

Before the encounter with the stranger, Novak was told by a senior administration official that Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, was employed by the CIA and may have been responsible for sending her husband to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from the African country. Two days prior, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times accusing the administration of twisting pre-war Iraq intelligence to win support for a pre-emptive strike against the country.

Recent news reports have fingered former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage as the official who first leaked Plame's employment at the CIA to Novak on July 8, 2003. However, White House political adviser Karl Rove spoke with Novak that day as well, and also told him that Plame was employed by the CIA, according to published reports. What's left unclear, however, by the latest media reports is who did Novak meet with first? Armitage or Rove?

As it turns out, July 8, 2003, was quite a busy day for some senior White House officials. That's the day Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller for a second time and discussed Valerie Plame with her. Libby, on orders from Cheney, also leaked a portion of the National Intelligence Estimate that dealt with Iraq's interest in uranium in order to debunk Wilson's accusation that the White House knowingly relied upon flawed intelligence to win support for the war.

In an effort to fill in some gaps in the narrative of the three-year-old CIA leak case, Truthout has tracked down the person who may help provide some clues and help answer that question: the "stranger" who was told by Novak on July 8, 2003, that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA - six days before Novak's infamous column that unmasked Plame was published.

This is the first time the man who met Novak on the street has spoken out publicly about his interaction with Novak three years ago. He was interviewed by Truthout several times over the past two months and has requested anonymity for fear of retribution for disclosing his role in the leak investigation. Truthout has confirmed the man's identity with former Ambassador Wilson. He is a former magazine publisher, and currently works as a consultant, mainly with private businesses helping local governments improve their infrastructure - such as building pipelines to improve water flow in one municipality. The man no longer lives in Washington, DC.

He said it was around 4 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, July 8, 2003, when he spotted Novak walking toward Pennsylvania Avenue. The man, who was somewhat star-struck, approached the longtime political columnist and asked if he could walk with him.

The man was headed to a meeting. He worked in the private sector and was not involved in Washington politics. He quickly struck up a conversation about politics with Novak and asked the columnist for his opinion about the mea culpa White House officials had made a day earlier about the infamous "16 words" in President Bush's State of the Union address claiming Iraq tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger.

"They should have come out with that months ago because they knew it wasn't true," Novak told the man.

The man then asked Novak what his thoughts were about former ambassador Wilson. Novak stopped dead in his tracks, looked directly at the man he had just met and said pointedly, "Wilson is an asshole. Let me tell you what really happened. His wife works for the CIA as a weapons of mass destruction specialist and she sent him."

When Novak launched into his attack on Wilson and disclosed the ambassador's wife's employment with the CIA, the man was left somewhat speechless, he said.

"At that point we came to another corner and parted ways," the man said.

What Novak did not know was that this man was a friend of Wilson's, having met the ambassador a few years earlier at a business function. Following his brief conversation with Novak, the man paid a visit to Wilson at his office and told him that Novak said Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.

"I didn't know Joe's wife and I had no idea what she did for a living," he said. "All I ever saw were photos of her and their young children in Joe's office. I just couldn't believe that Novak would tell something like this to someone he just met. What if he was talking to a kidnapper, or a spy, or even worse, a terrorist?"

The man Novak spoke with about Plame testified once in 2004 before the grand jury empanelled by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. He said he testified for less than half an hour and repeated exactly what Novak had said to him.

"I'll never forget the arrogance with which Novak spoke and Joe's reaction 15 minutes later when I went to his office to let him know what had just happened that summer afternoon in the streets of Washington, DC," said the man. "I did not know Novak and approached him solely as a person walking in the street and recognizing him from, most recently at that time, Crossfire - which broadcast a few blocks away at George Washington University."

If recent news reports are to be believed, the person Novak met with on July 8, 2003, who told the columnist about Plame's employment was former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage. However, Novak also spoke with White House political adviser Karl Rove that same day. Rove told Novak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. However, Novak claims Rove told him about Plame during a telephone interview.

The State Department is located on C Street NW between 21st and 23rd and has entrances on the back of the building on D Street. "I met him on F Street and 19th (which is about 3 blocks from the State Department) and he was walking toward Pennsylvania Avenue - away from the State Department," said the man who spoke with Novak. "The White House is also about 3 blocks from where I met him, and he was walking away from the White House."

Wilson confronted Novak about what he had discussed with the man on the street. "He listened quietly as I repeated to him my friend's account of their conversation. I told him I couldn't imagine what had possessed him to blurt out to a complete stranger what he had thought he knew about my wife," Wilson wrote in his book The Politics of Truth. "Novak apologized, and then asked if I would confirm what he had heard from a CIA source: that my wife worked at the Agency. I told him that I didn't answer questions about my wife. I told him that my story was not about my wife or even about me; it was about sixteen words in the State of the Union address."

In a column Novak published last month about the identity of his sources, Novak said former CIA public affairs director Bill Harlow was one official who confirmed Valerie Plame's identity for him and also told Novak that she worked for the CIA. Harlow's recollection is dramatically different, according to published reports.

Novak has been doing quite a bit of back peddling on previous comments he made to various media about who told him what and when about Valerie Plame. If in fact Richard Armitage was his primary source, why would the columnist change his story when he and Wilson spoke for a second time in 2003, shortly after Novak published his July 14, 2003, column identifying Plame as the ambassador's wife and a CIA operative?

"He cited not a CIA source, as he had indicated on the phone four days earlier, but rather two senior administration sources; I called him for a clarification," Wilson wrote in his book. "When we first spoke, he had cited to me a CIA source, yet his published story cited two senior administration sources. He replied: "I misspoke the first time we talked."

A day after Wilson's column was published, the White House acknowledged that the infamous "16 words" that appeared in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq's interest in uranium from Africa should not have been cited because the intelligence was unreliable.


Jason Leopold is former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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