Conservative US columnist revealed identity of CIA officer


Robert Novak:ROBERT NOVAK, the US newspaper columnist, who has died aged 78, made his name less for his truculent rightwing pontification than for his assiduous devotion to the founding principle of journalism – gathering information and publishing it one step ahead of everyone else.

During a 30-year collaboration with fellow journalist Rowland Evans, and later as a solo performer, Novak built an unrivalled list of contacts at all levels of the Washington establishment.

Rivals dubbed him the “Prince of Darkness” because he could be so chary of clarifying the status of his informants (readers of the 300 newspapers that carried his columns were often unsure whether the secretary of state or a doorkeeper had tipped him the wink), but he was proved more often right than not.

Six years ago, he crowned his long record of controversial disclosures by revealing the name and position of Valerie Plame, a clandestine CIA officer involved with intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

Her husband, Joseph Wilson, a former US diplomat, had enraged the Bush administration by publicly questioning the White House’s misuse of such intelligence to justify its invasion of Iraq.

Publishing Plame’s name broke federal law and there was a ferocious hunt for Novak’s source, which he stoutly refused to name.

This witch-hunt eventually brought prison sentences for a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, and for Lewis Libby, the chief of staff of former US vice-president Dick Cheney.

Under continuing pressure, Novak told all to a federal grand jury, naming the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, and US president George W Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove as his sources. He justified his action on the basis that both officials had already identified themselves. No one else was prosecuted, but it was not Novak’s finest hour.

Novak was born to a middle-class Jewish family in Illinois just as the Depression was hitting its stride. His interest in politics was sparked at the age of nine when his father encouraged him to stay up late to listen to broadcasts from the 1940 Republican convention.

Novak got into journalism while still at high school, sending sports reports to the local newspaper. He then moved upmarket as a student at the University of Illinois, contributing news reports to one of the state’s more important papers and, after military service during the Korean War, became a regional reporter for the Associated Press.

He was well enough regarded there to be transferred to Washington, where he soon married a senior White House secretary, Geraldine Williams. Their wedding reception was hosted by vice-president Lyndon Johnson: Novak was already adding useful names to his address book.

In 1958 Novak joined the Wall Street Journal, concentrating on political reporting and penning some of the paper’s famously rightwing leaders. In 1963, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune asked Evans, his chief Washington correspondent, to contribute a new political column to appear every weekday. It would plainly need more than one writer and Evans recruited Novak to help produce Inside Report.

The two concentrated on detailing the endless intrigue that is the hallmark of the Washington political scene, later widening their field to cover foreign policy.

Novak had rejected his Jewish heritage early in life and, at 67, converted to Catholicism. He is survived by Geraldine and their daughter, Zelda, and son, Alexander.

Robert David Sanders Novak: born February 26th, 1931; died August 18th, 2009