WASHINGTON — Columnist Robert Novak broke his silence Monday about his disclosure of an undercover CIA operative's identity, defending himself against a former agency official's account that he twice warned Novak not to publish the name.
In his syndicated column, Novak did not dispute that former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow had told him during conversations before his July 14, 2003, column, in which he named covert officer Valerie Plame, that he should not do so. But Novak reasserted that no CIA official ever told him in advance "that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger her or anybody else."
Plame is the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was sent to Niger by the CIA in 2002 to evaluate intelligence that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear materials.
More than a year later, with the U.S. government unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Wilson wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times under the headline "What I Didn't Find In Africa," in which he begins by asking: "Did the Bush administration manipulate intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify an invasion?"
Eight days later, Novak wrote the column in which he disclosed Plame's name, citing as sources two unidentified senior Bush administration officials. He wrote that the officials had told him Plame had suggested sending Wilson to Niger.
Wilson contends that the leak was retribution for his article and its criticism of the administration. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is investigating whether government officials broke the law by disclosing Plame's name to Novak and other journalists.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed July 6 because she refused to submit to Fitzgerald's questioning in the case. Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper avoided jail by agreeing to cooperate, saying that his source had released him from his pledge of confidentiality.
Harlow, interviewed recently by the Washington Post, acknowledged telling a grand jury that he spoke to Novak at least three days before the column appeared.
The CIA spokesman said he could not tell the columnist that Plame was a covert officer because that information was classified. But in at least two phone calls, Harlow said, he told Novak that Plame had not authorized her husband's mission and that, should Novak write a column about Wilson, her name should not be used, the Post reported.
Harlow declined to comment to Associated Press.
Novak, whose role in the case is unknown, had been silent on the series of events he set in motion. But he wrote about it Monday, saying he was ignoring his lawyers' advice because Harlow's account was "so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist."
In his column, Novak said that Harlow's admonition not to disclose Plame's name was "meaningless."
"Once it was determined that Wilson's wife suggested the mission, she could be identified as 'Valerie Plame' by reading her husband's entry in 'Who's Who in America,' " he wrote.
The columnist added that Harlow was "just plain wrong" in saying Novak had disregarded the CIA spokesman's comment that Plame had not authorized her husband's trip. "There never was any question of me talking about Mrs. Wilson 'authorizing.' I was told she 'suggested' the mission, and that is what I asked Harlow," he wrote.