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Novak Recycles Gannon on 'Plame-gate'

By Robert Parry
August 2, 2005

Right-wing columnist Robert Novak’s new attack on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson – that he was “discarded a year ago by the Kerry presidential campaign” – recycled a disputed report from Talon News correspondent Jeff Gannon, who was unmasked earlier this year as a pro-Republican operative working under an assumed name.

In an Aug. 1 column, Novak cited the Kerry campaign’s supposed rejection of Wilson to further denigrate the former ambassador, who has become a bete noire to Republicans since he charged in an opinion article on July 6, 2003, that the Bush administration “twisted” intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.

Eight days later, on July 14, 2003, Novak exposed the fact that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the Central Intelligence Agency, an outing of a covert officer that has sparked a two-year investigation into whether Bush administration officials violated legal prohibitions against disclosing the identity of a CIA officer.

Novak has refused publicly to answer questions about his role in the case – including what he may have told a federal grand jury about his administration sources – but he penned the Aug. 1 column to challenge former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow for claiming that he warned Novak about the potential danger in naming Plame.

Assault on Wilson

Novak’s column also resumed the Right’s long-running assault on Wilson’s credibility. Near the end of the column, Novak wrote that “Joseph Wilson was discarded a year ago by the Kerry presidential campaign after the Senate [intelligence] committee reported that much of what he [Wilson] said ‘had no basis in fact.’”

However, Novak’s sentence appears to be wrong on both its points. The Senate Intelligence Committee did not conclude that Wilson’s statements about the Iraqi intelligence “had no basis in fact.” That was a phrase that Novak culled from “additional views” of three Republican senators.

The full committee refused to accept that opinion written by Sen. Pat Roberts and backed by two other conservative Republicans – Christopher Bond and Orrin Hatch – yet Novak left the impression that the phrase was part of what he called “a unanimous Senate intelligence committee report” released in July 2004.

The other part of Novak’s attack on Wilson – about his supposed repudiation by Sen. John Kerry’s Democratic campaign – can be traced back to a story by Talon News’ former White House correspondent Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert.

On July 27, 2004, just over a year ago, a Talon News story under Gannon’s byline reported that Wilson “has apparently been jettisoned from the Kerry campaign.” The article based its assumption on the fact that “all traces” of Wilson “had disappeared from the Kerry Web site.”

The Talon News article reported that “Wilson had appeared on a Web site www.restorehonesty.com where he restated his criticism of the Bush administration. The link now goes directly to the main page of www.johnkerry.com and no reference to Wilson can be found on the entire site.”

A Web Redesign

But Peter Daou, who headed the Kerry campaign’s online rapid response, said the disappearance of Wilson’s link – along with many other Web pages – resulted from a redesign of Kerry’s Web site at the start of the general election campaign, not a repudiation of Wilson.

“I wasn’t aware of any directive from senior Kerry staff to ‘discard’ Joe Wilson or do anything to Joe Wilson for that matter,” said Daou, who now publishes the “Daou Report” at Salon.com. “It just got lost in the redesign of the Web site, as did dozens and dozens of other pages.”

Gannon/Guckert, who wrote frequently about the Wilson-Plame case in 2003-2004, came under suspicion as a covert Republican operative in January 2005 when he put a question to George W. Bush at a presidential news conference that contained a false assertion about Democrats and prompted concerns that Gannon/Guckert was a plant.

Later, liberal Web sites discovered that Gannon was a pseudonym for Guckert, who had posted nude photos of himself on gay-male escort sites. It also turned out that Talon News was owned by GOPUSA, whose president Robert Eberle is a prominent Texas Republican activist.

Though Gannon/Guckert had been refused a congressional press pass, he secured daily passes to the White House press briefing under his real name, Guckert. As a controversy built over the Bush administration paying for favorable news stories, Gannon/Guckert resigned from Talon News on Feb. 8 and its Web site effectively shut down.

However, a copy of the Talon News article about Wilson and his supposed rejection by the Kerry campaign remains on the Internet at FreeRepublic.com.

Novak vs. the CIA

Besides taking swipes at Wilson, Novak’s Aug. 1 column lambasted supposed “misinformation” from former CIA spokesman Harlow.

Novak wrote that Harlow’s “allegation against me is so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist that I feel constrained to reply.” But Novak’s complaint against Harlow looks like a classic case of splitting hairs.

Novak notes that Harlow told the Washington Post that Plame, who worked as a CIA officer on weapons of mass destruction, “had not authorized” sending her husband on a mission to Niger to investigate suspicions that Iraq was trying to buy processed uranium, called yellowcake. Novak said he never wrote that Plame “authorized” the trip, but only that she “suggested” it.

Harlow also said he warned Novak that if he did write about the Niger issue, he shouldn’t reveal Plame’s name. Novak said he recalled Harlow saying that identifying Plame would cause “difficulties,” but Novak insisted that he wouldn’t have exposed Plame if Harlow “or anybody else from the agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson’s disclosure would endanger her or anybody else.”

Novak argued that the fact that Plame had played a role in suggesting her husband for the mission to Niger justified naming her.

“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,’” Novak wrote.

But the overriding question has been why Plame’s role in suggesting her husband for the Niger trip was so important that it justified exposing not only an undercover CIA officer but the company that provided her cover and possibly agents around the world who had assisted her in tracking down sources of WMD.

Retaliation?

Some administration sources have said the Plame disclosure was an act of retaliation against Wilson for being one of the first mainstream public figures to challenge Bush for abusing WMD intelligence to justify invading Iraq. In his original column, Novak wrote that he was informed about Plame’s CIA job by “two senior administration officials.”

In September 2003, a White House official told the Washington Post that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column appeared on July 14, 2003. The official said the disclosures were “purely and simply out of revenge.”

Since last month, the Plame-leak controversy has focused on George W. Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove.

Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper told a federal grand jury that Rove was the first person to tell him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA on WMD issues and that Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was a second source.

Since Novak’s column in July 2003, the Republican assault on Wilson has concentrated on the strange point about his wife supposedly arranging the fact-finding trip to Niger, though it’s never been clear why the Republicans consider this question so important.

Who authorized the trip wouldn’t seem to have much bearing on Wilson’s conclusion that the Iraqis weren’t seeking yellowcake uranium in Niger – an assessment that turned out to be correct.

Yet, the Republican National Committee has continued to focus its fire on this small part of the controversy. On July 14, 2005, the RNC posted “Joe Wilson’s Top Ten Worst Inaccuracies and Misstatements,” which leads off with an RNC inaccuracy about the trip, claiming that “Wilson insisted that the Vice President’s office sent him to Niger.”

But not even the RNC’s own citation supports this accusation. To back up its charge, the RNC states, “Wilson said he traveled to Niger at CIA request to help provide response to Vice President’s office.”

That’s followed by a quote from Wilson: “In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. … The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the Vice President’s office.”

The RNC then quotes Cheney as saying, “I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson.”

But nothing in the comments by Wilson and Cheney are in contradiction. Wilson simply said CIA officials sent him on a mission because of questions from Cheney’s office. Cheney said he doesn’t know Wilson. Both points could be true, yet the RNC juxtaposed them to support a charge of dishonesty against Wilson.

Novak has now reintroduced another slur against Wilson – Jeff Gannon’s supposition that the Kerry campaign disowned the former ambassador.

When it comes to Joe Wilson, it seems that Bush loyalists never tire of beating a red herring to death.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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