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Daily Howler: Digby makes the best case against Novak. But here's why we don't buy it yet
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DIGGING DIGBY! Digby makes the best case against Novak. But here’s why we don’t buy it yet: // link // print // previous // next //

DESIGNING A BETTER PENGUIN: We believe we have a quick solution to the debate about Intelligent Design. Anyone inclined to believe in ID should be taken to see The March of the Penguins. After all, what “intelligent” designer could have devised the Rube Goldberg-style reproductive system of the hapless emperor penguin? For us, the sheer absurdity of penguin reproduction overpowers the film’s supposed merits. That and the hopeless, anthropomorphic narration written by the film’s French producers —a narration so silly it will make you rethink your decade-long defense of the French.

If any group ever needed a Moses to lead them from the wilderness of their hard wiring, it would have to be the emperor penguin. The emperor penguin—or the world film business, whose wiring has recently led them to ask Morgan Freeman to narrate all films.

CANSECO’S DISSENT: Rafael Palmeiro’s steroid mess provides a nice counterpoint to the whole Leakgate matter. Is it possible that Palmeiro is telling the truth—that he may have taken steroids unknowingly? All over cable, the emphasis has been on instant loud judgment—with little attention to the factual matters that might help us judge the case in a more intelligent way.

For ourselves, we didn’t necessarily believe Palmeiro when he testified in March, and we don’t necessarily disbelieve him now. In each case, we didn’t really know if he was telling the truth. Is it possible that a player can ingest steroids without knowing? This morning, another player who tested positive—Seattle Mariner Ryan Franklin—says that he is innocent too! The Times’ Lee Jenkins does the honors:

JENKINS (8/3/05): While Palmeiro is the highest-profile player ever to be suspended for steroid use, Franklin is a little-known starting pitcher with a 6-11 record and a 4.63 earned run average this season. He told reporters yesterday that he tested positive in early May and negative three weeks later.

''There's got to be a flaw in the system,'' Franklin was quoted as saying by The Associated Press at Detroit's Comerica Park, before the Mariners played the Tigers. ''I have no clue.”

Could Franklin be innocent? We have no clue either. But as usual, the flaws in our journalistic system have been obvious. Insistent opinion has quickly been voiced, with much less attempt to present background info. (That would be hard work.) Is Franklin innocent? We have no clue—and neither, really, do the shouters on cable. This time, though, the shouters are appearing on ESPN, with only occasional sightings on the cable “news” networks. The “news” nets, of course, are down in Aruba, busily digging a landfill.

By the way: On last night’s Hardball, Canseco said he believes Raffy—now. Dude offered a novel theory. You know what to do—just click here.

IN HOPE OF CELESTIAL COMEDY: Yesterday, we linked to this Digby post on Bob Novak; we did so because we think Digby makes the best case we’ve seen against Novak’s conduct in reporting the fact that Valerie Plame was “an agency [CIA] operative on weapons of mass destruction.” We’re going to spend more time on Digby’s post, below, explaining why we don’t yet agree with some of its overall reasoning. But before we do, let’s make one minor point. In a later post, Digby says this about yesterday’s HOWLER: “Somerby thinks that there's a good chance that [George] Tenet was the source Novak referred to as ‘not a partisan gunslinger,’ and I think that's certainly a possibility.” Because these things are so important, let me offer a clarifying point: I don’t know who Novak’s original source was, and I wouldn’t pretend to offer odds. Tenet would fit a good deal of what Novak has said or reportedly said; so would his second-in-command, John McLaughlin, and so would lesser-known CIA honchos. Of course, this presumes that Novak’s statements and reported statements were accurate. We can’t vouch for that.

At one point, we were hoping that Novak’s “no partisan gunslinger” would turn out to be Colin Powell, just for the High Amusement Value such an outcome would provide. One can still hope for celestial comedy. But just to be clear: We don’t know who Novak’s first source was, and we wouldn’t offer odds.

DIGGING DIGBY: In his original post about Novak’s column, Digby began with an excellent point. For the record, his observations are rooted in an admirable fact; the gentleman has actually read, and thought about, what Novak wrote in his column:

DIGBY (8/1/05): Novak's original column opened with this paragraph:

“The CIA's decision to send retired diplomat Joseph C. Wilson to Africa in February 2002 to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of uranium was made routinely at a low level without Director George Tenet's knowledge. Remarkably, this produced a political firestorm that has not yet subsided.”

Had Novak left it at that there would have been no repercussions. But he went on to reveal that Wilson's wife was the one who suggested him for the mission. And we know that it was the "wife" part of this story that was being spread all over town, not the fact that the decision to send Wilson to Niger was made in the bowels of the CIA.

Digby is absolutely right; if Novak had written the quoted paragraph, but omitted the later part about Plame, there would have been no repercussions about what he had written. Continuing directly, Digby makes another claim that is clearly correct—although, in our view, he puts his thumb on the scale in one part of his characterization:
DIGBY (continuing directly): This would have been a fairly standard issue character assassination if it hadn't been for the fact that Plame was undercover.
On one part of this, we again agree. Novak’s report about Plame’s work would have been “fairly standard issue” if Plame hadn’t been undercover—if the whole “outing” issue hadn’t been present. A thought experiment: Suppose Plame had worked at the State Department on WMD, and her office had sent Wilson on this same trip. There would have been no “outing” issue involved in reporting her (minor) role in that trip. Indeed, Novak’s report would have been “standard issue.” It would have been quite routine.

But is it fair to say that Novak’s report, in that case, would have been “standard issue character assassination?” At that point, Digby’s thumb seems to go on the scale, in a way we’d have to question. With the outing issue removed, would Novak’s report have been a case of “assassination,” or a case of something else? Indeed, let’s ask a tangy question: Wouldn’t it have been a case of “standard issue journalism?”

In this passage, Digby suggests that Novak’s report about Plame would have been wrong, even with “outing” issues removed. We’d have to challenge that judgment. In our system, there is a gigantic, massive presumption in favor of reporting accurate information. In the absence of “outing” issues, it would have been odd if no one reported that Wilson’s wife worked in the office that sent him on his trip to Niger. In our view, if Novak got the info first, it would have been “standard issue”journalism to just go ahead and report it.

That doesn’t mean that this information is necessarily important. As we have said since last year, we don’t care that Plame worked in the CPD, or that she played a (minor) role in Wilson’s trip. Wilson was clearly qualified for his trip; we’d prefer that his report were simply judged on its merits. (No one has said there was anything wrong with his report, which the CIA gave a grade of “good” for the quality of its information). But it’s hard to see how it could be a case of “character assassination” to report the accurate fact that Plame worked in the office which sent Wilson to Niger. Here’s the paragraph Novak wrote about Plame—and how the paragraph would have read if Plame had actually worked at State. We really think it’s stretching a bit to describe the second report as “character assassination:”

NOVAK’S REAL PARAGRAPH (7/14/03): Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.

NOVAK’S REVISED PARAGRAPH: Wilson hasn’t worked for State since 1998, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is a department [operative or analyst] on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The State Department says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "[Unknown quote]," Wilson told me.

If this matter had happened at State, it’s hard to know what Wilson would have said (there would have been no reason to withhold comment). But it’s hard to see why that latter paragraph would have qualified as “character assassination.” It would have recorded some simple facts, with which people could have done as they pleased. Digby, of course, is fairly sure that White House types would have used those facts to suggest that Wilson’s a girlie-man. (“Other than casting aspersions on Wilson's manhood, creating the impression that he wasn't qualified or sending a message to critics, I can't conceive of any legitimate reasons why it would be considered worth reporting.”) On this, he’s almost surely right, given the history of the past dozen years. But that doesn’t mean the facts shouldn’t be reported—only that their clownish misuse ought to be challenged when it occurs—challenged by aggressive liberal who aren’t afraid to fight.

And that is where we recoiled a bit as we read Digby’s post. Would White House types have used these facts to make Wilson into a girlie-man? Quite possibly, yes, they would have. But then, the liberal elite has long been willing to put up with such stupid, clownish conduct, even when that conduct has gone well beyond anything Novak did in this column (aside from the “outing” issues). Al Gore had to hire a woman to teach him how to be a man! In November and December 1999, our public discourse rang out with this claim, as a nasty trashing of Naomi Wolf had the press corps excitedly rubbing its thighs. In Promiscuities, Wolf said she wants to get in touch with her inner slut! That bogus cry also rang through the land. And: She looks just like Monica Lewinsky! But go ahead! Try to find the member of the liberal elite who had one word to say about it! (Like us, Digby isn’t a member of that powdered elite. This is not meant as criticism of him.) In fact, we know of no member of that elite who spoke up about the sliming of Wolf (and Gore); it fell to two conservatives, Safire and Kristol, to complain in public about Wolf’s trashing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/03). Let’s repeat that—it fell to Bill Kristol and William Safire to complain about this smutty trashing of Gore, so weak, denatured, uninvolved and inept were the powdered, cowering, self-dealing members of our pampered liberal elites! “Outing” issues to the side, we find it hard to criticize Novak for publishing accurate facts about Plame when the liberal elite has persistently tolerated much worse conduct in the past dozen years—has tolerated actual, gross misconduct, not mere projections of same. Yes, the White House might have played girlie-man against Wilson—just as the RNC has persistently done against major Dems, like Gore and then Kerry. But does that have to have been Novak’s motive? Again, there’s a presumption in favor of reporting true facts—and the fact that Plame worked in the office that sent Wilson was an accurate fact, a fact no one else had reported. “Outing” issues to the side, it’s odd to say that Novak shouldn’t have reported it—and yes, we think it’s unfair to call it “character assassination.”

For the record, was there any worthwhile reason to report that Plame worked in this office? Digby says he can’t think of any, but here at THE HOWLER, we can. We are unable to read Novak’s mind, but he says he was trying to answer a question that puzzled him once Wilson began to attack Bush in public—why had a Dem-leaner like Wilson been sent on this trip in the first place? (For the record, Wilson began advising Kerry several months before his op-ed column ran.) This is not a stupid question for a Bush-leaner like Novak to ask. In June 2000, for example, liberal elites should have asked similar questions when a Republican “hack” like Robert Conrad suddenly became the ten millionth head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force to propose that a special prosecutor investigate Gore, thereby dragging the Buddhist temple back into the news for its ten millionth run. But alas! Our leaders were getting their manicures done, and the episode led to Tim Russert’s disgraceful interview with Gore on Meet the Press that July. Of course, the liberal elite all ignored that one too. It was one of the most inexcusable TV interviews in the past dozen years, and it too went unchallenged.

But back to Wilson’s selection for the trip: As early as 2/02, an agency battle was going on between the White House and the CIA; as far as we know, the CIA was persistently right in this scuffle, but under our imperfect system of government, White House leaners get to suspect that the CIA sent a hack to Niger to pimp its own preferred outlook, just as Dems got to note, in June 2000, that Conrad was a Republican hack who had contributed to Jesse Helms in the past. This is the essence of politics. Absent the “outing” issues, there’s nothing wrong with poking at Wilson’s tie to the office which sent him, and it’s easy for a Dem to respond—by noting that Wilson was thoroughly qualified for his trip, a trip which produce a competent report. Was the White House waiting to girlie-man Wilson? Quite possibly. But it’s absurd to suggest that, for that reason, no one could or should have reported the fact that Plame worked in the office that dispatched Wilson, and it seems unfair to describe that reporting as a case of “character assassination.”

Digby is more sensible and persuasive in his claims about Novak than anyone else we’ve seen. (No, we don’t believe that Novak said “Plame” so American assets would get killed across the globe.) But we ourselves will choose to wait to learn more about what happened. There was nothing wrong with reporting the fact that Plame worked in the office that dispatched Wilson. And by the way, if Wilson would be more forthright about these matters, he wouldn’t give people the impression that he might be hiding something. At times, his book is disingenuous to the point of misstatement about Plame’s (minor, unobjectionable) role in his trip. More enjoyably, at one point he pens a long, principled passage about the way high-minded public servants avoid all appearance of nepotism:

WILSON (page 346): Quite apart from the matter of her employment, the claim that Valerie had played any substantive role in the decision to ask me to go to Niger was false on the face of it. Anyone who knows anything about the government bureaucracy knows that public servants go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it. Family members are expressly forbidden from accepting employment that places them in any direct professional relationship, even once or twice removed. Absurd as these lengths may seem, a supervisor literally cannot even supervise the supervisor of the supervisor of another family member without high-level approval. Valerie could not have stood in the chain of command had she tried to. Dick Cheney might be able to find a way to appoint one of his daughters to a key decision-making position in the State Department’s Middle East Bureau, as he did; but Valerie could not—and would not if she could—have had anything to do with the CIA decision to ask me to travel to Niamey.
This is inspiring, and Wilson works in a dig against Cheney. But inevitably, whatever his many virtues, to read Joe Wilson is to get yourself chumped. Obviously, Wilson and Plame did not “go to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it” in the matter of his trip to Niger. If they had, Plame wouldn’t have introduced Wilson to the decision-makers at the meeting where this trip was considered, and she wouldn’t have served as hostess at his post-trip debriefing—a meeting held in the Wilson home, exactly where it wouldn’t be held if Wilson and Plame had “gone to great lengths to avoid nepotism or any appearance of it.” Meanwhile, we’re now being told, by the Post’s Pincus/VandeHei, that this was actually the second time Plame had been involved in a Wilson trip—that she actually did “authorize” an earlier trip to Niger, in 1999. For ourselves, we don’t especially care about that; we only care about Wilson’s performance in Niger, and we know of no problem with that. But in fact, Wilson and Plame weren’t especially careful to avoid the appearance of nepotism, despite his high-minded claims to the contrary. Result? Two years of fighting about ancillary matters! But alas! Bush-leaners do get to poke at that “appearance of nepotism”—and readers of Wilson’s book should roll their eyes as they get chumped with stirring prose about the way he struggled and strained to avoid this bad appearance.

By the way, Plame’s three-minute introduction at that first meeting? Her hostess role at the debriefing? Wilson’s book is 500 pages long—and neither episode is mentioned! Nor is that famous (in our view, insignificant) memo—the memo Plame sent her bosses at some point. And oh yes: That earlier, 1999 trip? Plame’s apparent role doesn’t get mentioned, either. Yep—by the time he wrote his book, Wilson was finally “avoiding appearances!” If he had done so in real time, we might be discussing something different today.

Whatever Wilson’s virtues—we’ll guess there are many—he has often embellished, misstated and deep-sixed in public discussions of his trip. That’s why we’re slow to reach final judgments based on views of this matter which track back to him—a matter which we plan to explore in more detail next week.

“OUTING” ISSUE BRIEFLY RESTORED: One quick point on the “outing” issue, the issue we put to the side above, as Digby did in his “assassination” comment.

Should Novak have refrained from publishing, based on what Bill Harlow told him? For ourselves, we’d like to hear more evidence (but then, we’re not licking our chops for conservative scalp, hoping that a prosecutor will do what we liberals can’t achieve on our own). But remember: In our system, there’s a presumption in favor of publishing information—and there’s a massive presumption against being told by the government not to do so. Routinely, the CIA will have an interest in stifling discussion of its own conduct (for example, of trips which have a slight hint of nepotism, which all public servants work hard to avoid). We have no experience in this area, and we’d like to hear discussions by journalists who have had experience. But it’s absurd for liberals to argue that journalists should automatically do what the CIA tells them. It’s up to the CIA to make a strong case. Did Harlow do that? We don’t know.

Final note: No, that isn’t Wilson’s worst case of dissembling—and in our view, his actual trip was perfectly OK. But we had to chuckle when we read about the way he tried to avoid appearances. Other misstatements seem odder to us. We’ll look at them next week.

TOMORROW: Klein and Bumiller didn’t take the bait, suggesting a change in the press corps.