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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Matthew Cooper's misleading attack on the late Bob Novak

[Originally posted at "Beltway Confidential."]

Now, I don't agree with the notion that one should never speak ill of the recently deceased. Sure, there's no reason to bad-mouth the kid next door who died of cancer, even if he was a bully, but if a public figure passes away, balancing the paeans with critical material is valid.

And Bob Novak, my boss for nearly five years, was not only a public figure, he was intentional stirrer of strife. It's fitting to debate his legacy. Some critiques I've read of him this week were legitimate contributions to the discussion.

But if you wait until a man dies to badmouth him in print, and then attack him through name-calling and deceptive omission--well, that's not quite gentlemanly. I'm talking, in this instance, about Matthew Cooper's blog post at the Atlantic.

Cooper was caught up in the whole Valerie Plame mess, and like Novak, he protected his sources until he learned that the sources had already told prosecutors about their conversations and specifically relieved Cooper of his confidentiality pledge.

But Cooper tries to paint Novak in a black hat and himself in a white hat:

Novak had acted as a transmission belt for the malevolent leakers who sought to trash former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had the temerity to criticize the war and report that he had been to the African country of Niger at the behest of the CIA where his wife worked. My piece noted that the trashing of Wilson continued. My goal was not to serve as an open mike for the leakers--which Novak did--but to show them up.

There are many problems with this passage, but let's start with the glaring omission. Nowhere in the entire post, which talks about Novak's "leakers," and which mentions Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, does Cooper include the name of the man who told Novak Plame worked at the CIA, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Omitting Armitage's name allows Cooper to tout the line that liberals and Democrats tried to use in the 2004 election: a conservative columnist had teamed up with Karl Rove (who confirmed Armitage's nugget when Novak asked him about it) and Scooter Libby (whom Novak never spoke with) to kneecap Joe Wilson for opposing the war and exposing the White House's bad intelligence.

Cooper uses all the buzzwords of this meme: "malevolent leakers who sought to trash former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had the temerity to criticize the war...."

But Richard Armitage was basically a dove, and Novak had so consistently, and publicly opposed the Iraq War that it earned him the label of "Unpatriotic." In fact, Novak wasquestioning the pro-war intelligence in print long before Wilson was.

Consider this analysis by David Corn and Michael Isikoff--hardly Novak defenders:

The disclosures about Armitage, gleaned from interviews with colleagues, friends and lawyers directly involved in the case, underscore one of the ironies of the Plame investigation: that the initial leak, seized on by administration critics as evidence of how far the White House was willing to go to smear an opponent, came from a man who had no apparent intention of harming anyone.

Novak's stance on Iraq seems relevant if you're going to lump him in with "malevolent leakers" attacking war critics. But by omitting even Armitage's name Cooper's piece seems, to borrow a phrase he uses to attack Novak, "more about destroying than illuminating."

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