Columnist Novak is caught in crossfire

ID of CIA operative becomes subject of investigation

October 03, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

In the privacy of his Pennsylvania Avenue penthouse, Robert D. Novak must be loving this.

The conservative Washington columnist has gleefully seized upon past political imbroglios as fodder for his articles. Now, he finds himself at the center of what may become the first true scandal of the Bush White House.

And all from a brief - some say gratuitous - identification in a newspaper column of a diplomat's spouse as a CIA operative.

In a July 14 column, Novak reported that two Bush administration officials said that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, was a CIA operative. The columnist reported her name - though it is illegal for federal officials to disclose an undercover operative's links to that agency. A half dozen other journalists also reportedly received the information but decided against publishing it.

Wilson charged that the columnist had been used by Bush aides and had imperiled his wife. The flap became a full-blown scandal late last month when CIA Director George Tenet asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the leak of the woman's identity.

"I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," Novak said soon after to Newsday, which advanced the story by reporting the woman had been undercover. Since then, however, Novak has denied taking the bait that other journalists resisted, saying he had actively fished for information about Wilson. He also wrote that the CIA had not made a vigorous case for withholding her name.

But many Democratic lawmakers and commentators on the right and left have questioned exposing Wilson's wife publicly. Through an aide, Novak declined several requests for comment for this article, including a written request that set out in advance key elements of the story.

A resolute conservative whose beliefs have listed increasingly to the right in recent years, Novak is best known among friends and fellow journalists as one of the hardest-working columnists on the political beat. The ferocity of his tone has earned him the nickname of "Prince of Darkness," a mantle he has embraced. His journalistic home is the Chicago Sun-Times, although his columns also run twice a week in the Washington Post - a fact that makes him a highly influential figure in political circles. (His columns are also regularly published in scores of newspapers.)

"Bob's column is a must-read because he always tells you something you didn't know," says Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Sun-Times.

With the ascendancy of Republicans in both houses of Congress and the White House, the 72-year-old Novak has gained fresh momentum for providing a window into the machinations of the GOP's conservative wing.

"I think of Bob Novak and Bob Woodward as the two best reporters in America," says Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "He's certainly the most important conservative columnist and reporter." Novak's sources are unrivaled, Barnes says, allowing him to break stories on a wide series of topics, such as the Federal Reserve Board, China and political maneuvering in both parties. Beginning in the late 1970s, Novak has served as a champion of supply-side economics, popularizing a theory held dear among many conservatives that tax cuts stoke economic booms.

Yet a few peers say - even as they profess fondness for the columnist - that Novak is willing to bend facts to fit his beliefs. "There is a certain element that he presents as reporting and fact that is actually his opinion," says Slate columnist Michael Kinsley, who served as Novak's liberal sparring partner on CNN's Crossfire.

Novak was born in Joliet, Ill., in February 1931, and was hired for his first journalism job 16 years later for the hometown Herald-News. After a stint as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he worked for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Herald-Tribune, and Readers Digest. His mordant wit, dour demeanor and dark three-piece suits became nationally recognizable through his participation in television programs such as Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group.

Along with his longtime professional partner, the late Rowland Evans, Novak wrote a syndicated column for 30 years. He also used his celebrity to cultivate a lucrative sideline making speeches to corporate groups and publishing other financial and political periodicals. In another enterprise that garnered some criticism, the two journalists organized corporate seminars at which government officials - who were also his sources - spoke.

Novak was, at one point, more sympathetic to Democrats than Republicans: "I knew him when he was liberal, which he was, although he won't admit it," says Jack W. Germond, the retired Sun columnist who first met Novak in 1958. Novak has said in past interviews that he voted for Democrat Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but none since.

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