Probes of Novak detailed in newly released FBI papers

The FBI tried to determine the sources of columns by Rowland Evans, left, and Robert Novak.
The FBI tried to determine the sources of columns by Rowland Evans, left, and Robert Novak. (Harry Naltchayan/the Washington Post)
By Joe Stephens
Friday, May 21, 2010

The FBI launched three investigations into the source of classified material made public by newspaper columnist Robert Novak in the 1980s, newly obtained records show.

Previously secret FBI files reveal that the bureau pursued his sources after reading columns by Novak and his writing partner, Rowland Evans, that were published in The Washington Post in 1983 and again in 1987. Agents also tried to identify the source of classified information that Novak divulged in 1983 on the television show "The McLaughlin Group."

Though agents conducted interviews, reviewed appointment calendars, requested polygraph tests and considered using an administrative subpoena to obtain phone records, they apparently were unable to confirm the identity of any of the sources.

The revelations are contained in 64 pages of files released Wednesday to The Washington Post in response to an open records request filed after Novak's death in August 2009, at the age of 78. By law, such files become public after the subject of the investigation dies.

Novak was a well-known columnist and TV commentator, and high-level government officials often supplied him with information. His "Inside Report" column, which he wrote with Evans for 30 years, was widely syndicated, and Washington insiders often used it to surface information that could embarrass political opponents.

In the later years of his life, Novak became best known for publicly identifying Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA operative in a column he published in 2003. That column also launched a federal investigation into his source for the information, which led to the 2007 conviction of vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. The files released this week contain no reference to Wilson's case.

The FBI file, portions of which were redacted before its release, begins in August 1983. Then-FBI Director William H. Webster sent a memo labeled "SECRET" to the bureau's Washington field office, alleging that a May 16, 1983, column by Novak and Evans included what the FBI termed a UDIC -- an Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Information.

The column described the contents of a telegram from Secretary of State George Shultz to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens. The telegram, which begins with the salutation "Dear Misha," informed the minister that the United States had approved technology transfer licenses necessary to develop a new class of military aircraft, and suggested that the approval was made in exchange for Israel's agreement to remove troops from Lebanon.

Webster's memo suggested that agents should ask one person whom he suspected of leaking the telegram -- whose name was removed from the file before it was released to The Post -- to take a polygraph test. Webster also directed agents to obtain a list from the National Security Council of people who had access to the classified telegram.

Webster told agents in the field office that if they used an administrative subpoena known as a national security letter to obtain phone records of people on the list, the records might reveal calls to Novak and Evans. Appointment calendars also might show meetings with the journalists, he wrote.

Other documents show that State Department officials told FBI agents that a member of the NSC met with Novak and Evans on a weekly basis, and that he was the likely source of the leak.

The FBI closed its investigation almost a year later without identifying the leaker. There is nothing in the file to indicate that agents conducted a polygraph test or obtained phone records.

Other documents show that the FBI opened an investigation into remarks that Novak made on the Oct. 30, 1983, broadcast of "The McLaughlin Group." That probe found that 11 people may have had access to the information made public on the show, one of whom was Shultz. The nature of the classified information is not disclosed in the FBI file.

Records show agents also looked into a Nov. 18, 1987, column in The Post, which contained classified information "not previously cleared for release" regarding "hidden" SS-20 nuclear missiles. Memos on that investigation, which was classified as secret, were sent directly to the FBI director's office.

Once again, there is nothing in the file to indicate that the source of the information was identified.

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