Robert Novak Dishes on Valerie Plame and Hubby

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It's not often that a political book hyped as a "tell-all" actually delivers the dirt, but that's certainly not the story in Robert Novak's fast-paced bio The Prince of Darkness, 50 Years Reporting in Washington . Let's get right to the point: Did the administration leak former CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to him to punish her hubby, Joe Wilson, who had blasted the president's claim that Iraq was shopping for uranium in Niger? Nope. He says that it was just an afterthought from his source, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In fact, it wasn't even a leak. Armitage was just asking a question about Wilson, whom Novak met two days before, July 6, 2003, in the Meet the Press green room. According to an advance copy of Prince provided to Whispers, Novak entered the normally quiet green room only to see Joe Wilson (whom he didn't know) boasting about his fact-finding mission to Niger, where he found no evidence that Saddam Hussein was hunting for uranium like the president claimed about in his State of the Union address.

"He kept saying, 'We did this' and 'We did that.' The 'we,' I soon surmised, consisted of the National Security Council staff in the departed Clinton administration. He was making clear that 'we' handled affairs better than 'they'--the Bush NSC--did now. In view of what followed, I hope I can be excused for the vulgarism that crossed my mind: 'What an asshole!' "

Two days later, and after getting up to speed on Wilson's claims, Novak was wrapping up a previously scheduled interview with Armitage when he asked why the CIA would send Wilson, a diplomat with no nuclear proliferation experience, to Niger. " 'Well,' Armitage said, 'you know his wife works at the CIA, and she suggested that he be sent to Niger.' 'His wife works for the CIA?' I [Novak] asked. 'Yeah, in counterproliferation,' " said Armitage. After mentioning her first name, "Valerie," Novak says that Armitage even joked, "that's real Evans and Novak, isn't it," a reference to the type of insider gossip Novak and his deceased former colleague Rowland Evans used to traffic in. Writes Novak: "I interpreted that as meaning Armitage expected to see the item published in my column." He added: "I am sure it was not a planned leak but came out as an offhand observation."

The rest is history. Novak was investigated in the CIA spy case, slammed by fellow journalists for "outing" an agent, the subject of what he calls false stories, kicked off his regular CNN gig, and barred from Meet the Press for two years-and out $160,000 in legal fees. Still, he writes, "Judging it on the merits, I would still write the story."

Other tidbits:

--He feels betrayed by David Corn of the Nation, whom he liked sparring with on CNN's old Crossfire program. He said Corn laid the basis for what would become the attacks on Novak: that he let the Bush administration use him to take a shot at a critic.

--He raps Newsday's Timothy M. Phelps for writing that Novak said his sources came to him with the Plame tip. "My Newsday quote was reprinted endlessly for years to come, as was Phelps's introductory statement to what I said: 'Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information.' I said no such thing."

--Novak assailed some of the Washington Post's coverage of the Justice Department's probe into the CIA leak case, specifically the claim that the administration was shopping the Plame story around town and that she was "fair game" because of Wilson's attacks on the president. Writes Novak: "It was one thing to be attacked frontally by Joe Wilson and sniped at in the Nation and Newsday. It was much more serious to be misrepresented in the Washington Post, the paper to which I owed so much. Those misrepresentations became the perceived truth about me."

--Novak really hated a story written by the Baltimore Sun suggesting that he loved the attention of the case and investigation. And don't get him started about the bloggers: "I was daily accused of treason and denounced in the most obscene terms, with personal threats against me and my family--even my grandchildren."

--The betrayal he felt from fellow reporters, he said, was summed up in a New York Times column by Geneva Overholser, a former Washington Post ombudsman, which alleged "ethical lapses" by Novak for attacking whistleblower Wilson and his wife. He recalled meeting her for the first time at a party following the annual Gridiron Club dinner when she confronted him face to face: "I don't see how you can stand to see yourself in the mirror in the morning. You're a disgrace to journalism."

--Novak felt more betrayal from conservative pal Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard. He recalls watching Kristol on C-SPAN as the magazine editor distanced himself from Novak, whose conduct in the CIA leak case he called "reprehensible."

Still, at age 75, Novak sounds satisfied and happy with his extraordinary career, which started with the Joliet Herald-News in 1948, where he made $42.50 a week. He made as much as $1.2 million in 2004, writing his column and appearing on CNN before the floor fell out. "I made a lot less than that in 2006. My profile for Fox News was much smaller than it had been at CNN, but I was treated with respect and permitted to deliver commentaries by myself without debating left-wing counterparts. The CIA case did not keep me off the air there as it had at CNN. I also became a TV commentator for Bloomberg News, working with old CNN colleagues Margaret Carlson and Al Hunt. My workload was diminished to a level appropriate for a 75-year-old. I had more time for my column, which several readers actually told me had improved after I left CNN."