WASHINGTON -- A statement attributed to the former CIA spokesman indicating that I deliberately disregarded what he told me in writing my 2003 column about Joseph Wilson's wife is just plain wrong.
Though frustrated, I have followed the advice of my attorneys and written almost nothing about the CIA leak over two years because of a criminal investigation by a federal special prosecutor. The lawyers also urged me not to write this. But the allegation against me is so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist that I feel constrained to reply.
In the course of a front-page story in last Wednesday's Washington Post, Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei quoted ex-CIA spokesman Bill Harlow describing his testimony to the grand jury. In response to my question about Valerie Plame Wilson's role in former Amb. Wilson's trip to Niger, Harlow told me she "had not authorized the mission." Harlow was quoted as later saying to me "the story Novak had related to him was wrong."
This gave the impression I ignored an official's statement that I had the facts wrong but wrote it anyway for the sake of publishing the story. That would be inexcusable for any journalist and particularly a veteran of 48 years in Washington. The truth is otherwise, and that is why I feel compelled to write this column.
My column of July 14, 2003, asked why the CIA in 2002 sent Wilson, a critic of President Bush, to Niger to investigate an Italian intelligence report of attempted Iraqi uranium purchases. All the subsequent furor was caused by three sentences in the sixth paragraph:
"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 that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA [Harlow] says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."
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. His denial was contradicted in July 2004 by a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee report. The report said Wilson's wife "suggested his name for the trip." It cited an internal CIA memo from her saying "my husband has good relations" with officials in Niger and "lots of French contacts," adding they "could possibly shed light on this sort of activity." A State Department analyst told the committee that Mrs. Wilson "had the idea" of sending Wilson to Africa.
So, what was "wrong" with my column as Harlow claimed? There was nothing incorrect. He told the Post reporters he had "warned" me that if I "did write about it, her name should not be revealed." That is 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."
Harlow said to the Post that he did not tell me Mrs. Wilson "was undercover because that was classified." What he did say was, as I reported in a previous column, "she probably never again would be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause 'difficulties.'" According to CIA sources, she was brought home from foreign assignments in 1997, when Agency officials feared she had been "outed" by the traitor Aldrich Ames.
I have previously said that I never would have written those sentences if Bill Harlow, then CIA Director George Tenet or anybody else from the Agency had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody.
The recent first disclosure of secret grand jury testimony set off a news media feeding frenzy centered on this obscure case. Joseph Wilson was discarded a year ago by the Kerry presidential campaign after the Senate committee reported much of what he said "had no basis in fact." The re-emerged Wilson is now accusing the senators of "smearing" him. I eagerly await the end of this investigation when I may be able to correct other misinformation about me and the case.