The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal,
and the Selling of the Iraq War
by Michael Isikoff and David Corn
Crown, 463 pp., $25.95
The publication of Hubris is filled with irony for David Corn, Washington editor of the left-wing Nation magazine. He was present at the creation of the Valerie Plame "scandal," which the enemies of George W. Bush hoped could bring down a president. Nobody was more responsible for bloating this episode. Yet Corn is coauthor of a book that has had the effect of killing the story.
Thanks to Corn's intrepid coauthor, Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, Hubris definitively revealed then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as my source that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie, worked for the CIA and suggested her husband's mission to Africa. Armitage, an internal critic of the administration's Iraq policy, did not fit the left's theory of a conspiracy led by Karl Rove and "Scooter" Libby to discredit Wilson as a war critic. Nor did it fit the overriding theme of Isikoff and Corn in depicting "spin, scandal and the selling of the Iraq war."
As a result, Corn has been frantic--in the Nation, on his blog, and all over television--to depict an alternate course in which Rove, Libby, and Vice President Cheney attempted, by design and independently, to do what Armitage purportedly accomplished accidentally. The introduction of Hubris states that Armitage's statement to me was (according to the deputy secretary's colleagues) "a slip-up by an inveterate gossip--but one that occurred alongside a concerted White House effort to undermine a critic of the war." This, the authors continue, "was a window into a much bigger scandal: the Bush administration's use of faulty intelligence and its fervent desire (after the [Iraq] invasion) to defend its prewar sales pitch."
This desperate attempt to resuscitate a dubious conspiracy theory falls flat, and undermines what seems to be the real reason for writing Hubris. While its reportorial tone gives the book a façade of objectivity, in fact it constitutes a broad assault on Bush, his administration, and his policies in the war against terrorism. That entails the retelling of manifold allegations of perfidy, so familiar that they grow tiresome. The book's only new element is what it reveals about the Plame case, and there they trumped their own ace by facilitating the source's exposure in advance of publication.
The book is also exceptional partly because its authors are so oddly matched. Isikoff, who views himself as nonideological and nonpartisan, led reporters in tracking Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky affair (recorded in his Uncovering Clinton). Corn is a stereotypical leftist activist without a nonideological bone in his body. His first book, Blond Ghost, was a vicious attack on the legendary CIA operative and Cold War hero Theodore Shackley, and the bias of his later work, The Lies of George W. Bush, is obvious from its title.
I can only imagine the debates that must have taken place between coauthors to determine the direction of this book. The resulting product is some of the investigator Isikoff and a lot of the ideologue Corn. Hubris is not an unmitigated apologia for the Wilsons, but it comes close.
Corn telephoned me on July 16, 2003, two days after publication of my Valerie Plame column. He was neither a dispassionate reporter seeking information nor a former colleague on CNN's Crossfire, where we maintained a relatively friendly relationship when he was a substitute liberal cohost in 1997-98. Instead, he was an impassioned, angry activist who accused me of "outing a CIA agent" and breaking the law. Since the Nation had never before been concerned with the protection of intelligence agents, I suspected political motives behind Corn's outrage. It was our final conversation. The last thing Corn wanted from me was additional information.
I did not know how closely Corn was connected to Joseph Wilson IV until Wilson's memoir, The Politics of Truth, was published in 2004. Wilson related that Corn called him July 17 "to alert me what Novak had done, or at least what the person who had leaked Valerie's name to him had done, was possibly a crime." By the Nation's August 4 issue, Corn was writing that I, as a journalist, was not subject to prosecution. But on July 17 he clearly had conveyed the opposite impression to Wilson, who was the original source of Internet blather--continuing to this day--that I am a "traitor." (Wilson will be the featured attraction for the Nation's annual cruise in December.)
I am most aggrieved that the book not only fails to use what I have written in my columns as my account of the case, but also distorts my position. I wrote that I had faced "a dilemma" on December 30, 2003, because Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was going to confront me with waivers from every official who conceivably could have told me about Valerie Plame Wilson.
"I did not believe blanket waivers in any way relieved me of my journalistic responsibility to protect," I wrote last July 12. Since I could not reveal their names, I feared facing the same legal juggernaut that sent Judith Miller of the New York Times to jail.
The dilemma was resolved when Fitzgerald showed up to interview me with waivers only from my three sources. The prosecutor had learned their names on his own, so there was no use in not testifying about them. Hubris misrepresents me by saying my dilemma came after Fitzgerald appeared with the three waivers ("crunch time for Novak") and that I gave up their names under pressure from the special prosecutor. This is such a misreading of my clear account that it must have been derived from either sloppiness or malice.
In Hubris, Corn never comes to grips with the fact that Armitage could not be prosecuted under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act because Valerie Wilson was not a covert operative under the terms of the law. A 463-page book that is endlessly discursive does not seriously consider that she was no longer assigned to foreign missions because her cover already had been broken. It never even mentions the report that Mrs. Wilson had been outed long ago by the traitor Aldrich Ames.
Unlike Corn, Isikoff did seek information from me. My neighbor in a Washington office building a block from the White House, Isikoff for the past year pestered me with two queries. First, had I cooperated with Special Counsel Fitzgerald? I could say nothing, I told him, until I received permission from Fitzgerald. Second, Isikoff wanted me to confirm that Armitage was my principal source. I could say nothing one way or another about my source, I told him, until that source released me.
I don't know precisely how Isikoff flushed out Armitage, but Hubris clearly points to two sources: Washington lobbyist Kenneth Duberstein, Armitage's political adviser, and William Taft IV, who was the State Department legal adviser when Armitage was deputy secretary. This book's publication date was early September, but the Associated Press was getting close to identifying Armitage. I received a heads-up telephone call from Isikoff, vacationing in Europe, that his Newsweek editors had to rush publication of his Armitage disclosure. That finally forced Armitage's belated admission, freeing me to relate details.
Herein lie the disadvantages of writing a book about a moving story. This is not daily or weekly journalism, subject to addition, subtraction, and amendment. Hubris misses Armitage's assertion that he "thought" Mrs. Wilson worked at the CIA, information that he indicated was mere chitchat. I responded in a column that Armitage clearly identified her division at the agency and unmistakably signaled his expectation that I would write about her in my column. I set down my version of what Armitage said shortly after our meeting, while his reconstruction of words (that he first said he did not remember) was made two-and-a-half months later.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that this book would have accepted Armitage's version instead of mine. That is because the conspiracy theorists have a vested interest. Although Hubris was written before Armitage admitted his role, explanations the authors got from his friends echo what he later said himself. The book concludes that "Armitage had seemingly mentioned [Mrs. Wilson] either to distance his department from the Wilson mission, or simply, to share a piece of hot gossip."
Just to make sure readers get the idea, 83 pages later, Corn and Isikoff declare: "Armitage feared that the White House would leak that Armitage had been Novak's source to deflect attention itself and to embarrass State Department leaders who had never been enthusiastic about the President's Iraq policy."
While Hubris was willing to forgive Armitage for leaking, I was given no such forbearance. I expected that treatment several weeks ago when I was shocked to learn from Isikoff that Corn was his collaborator. I suppose that it would have been much worse had Corn written the book by himself, but it was bad enough. I do credit Isikoff for at least one reference to my being an opponent of U.S. intervention in Iraq, and much more publicly than Armitage. Nevertheless, Corn cannot give up the idea that I was part of a White House conspiracy to discredit Wilson, even though nobody from the Bush White House ever contacted me about Valerie Plame. While others quoted in the book merely "said something," I am represented as having "claimed" or "insisted."
Irrelevant issues are dredged up to allege a conspiratorial relationship with Karl Rove. For example, Hubris goes far afield to imply that Rove was responsible for my column this year noting antiwar congressman John Murtha's connection with the Abscam scandal 26 years ago. In truth, at that point Rove (on the advice of his lawyers), had not spoken to me for over two years. (In fact, I was reminded of Murtha's past by two prominent Democrats, a former congressman and a former California party leader.) Corn wrote that "Murtha had been investigated by the FBI," not that he was an unindicted co-conspirator, which was the centerpiece of my column.
Such inconvenient facts, even entire subject areas, are frequently omitted. This is commonplace for a polemicist like Corn but not a careful investigative reporter like Isikoff. The book's effort to cleanse Wilson stoops to deception: It accepts at face value Wilson's self-described political nonpartisanship, asserting that he "was not considered a fierce Democrat or a Bush Administration foe" when he embarked on his mission to Niger, citing his 1999 contribution to George W. Bush. In that same year, Joseph and Valerie Wilson not only contributed $1,000 each to Al Gore's presidential campaign, but the former ambassador also served on the Democratic nominee's policy staff. This, surely, was known to the authors, who chose to ignore it.
They ignored a lot more, such as what the July 2004 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee's Republicans, unchallenged by the Democratic minority, did to Wilson. It undermined his conclusions (based on his African mission) that Iraq did not seek yellowcake uranium, and undercut his insistence that his wife did not suggest him to the CIA for that mission. After the Senate report, Wilson disappeared from the Kerry for President campaign, something that also goes unmentioned in this book.
A major factor in Isikoff's decision to collaborate with Corn presumably was the leftist journalist's close relationship with the Wilsons, which provided supposedly exclusive information on Valerie's CIA duties. But the information is mainly Wilson boilerplate. I am disappointed that so accomplished a reporter as Isikoff did not probe more deeply into exactly what Mrs. Wilson did at the Agency. He must have questioned the story that "Brewster-Jennings & Associates," a nonexistent, totally fictitious company publicly listed by Valerie as her employer, was a cover for many CIA operatives. He must have known that former New York Times reporter Clifford May had also learned that Mrs. Wilson worked for the CIA before my column appeared. None of this was explored by the authors.
I do credit Isikoff for rejecting the canard that the White House had been peddling the Valerie Plame story all over town (to at least six journalists) before it got to me. The book also identifies the "senior administration official" quoted in a Washington Post story as the source of the six-journalists story, and as saying that the White House was out for "purely and simply revenge" against Wilson. He turns out to be Adam Levine, an obscure, middle-level communications aide who soon left the White House.
In their tirade against the Bush White House, Isikoff and Corn found a hero: Paul Pillar, then the CIA officer in charge of the Middle East. During the 2004 election campaign, I wrote in a column that Pillar was delivering off-the-record briefings to citizens groups around the country, and was highly critical of the president seeking a second term. Probing such subversion at the CIA might have been an interesting exercise for an investigative reporter, but that is not what this book is about.
Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist.