Saturday, June 05, 2004
Fiction -- No fan of Robert Novak
Fiction by Steve Johnston and read on 6/05/04
I was closing my office door and starting to lock it when I heard the phone ring. Figuring it was my wife wondering how late I’d be getting home, I managed to pick it up on the fourth ring.
“You’re Robert Novak, right?” a voice said.
“Yes, however, I’m overdue for an engagement. Could this wait until to-morrow, Mr. --?”
The voice came back, “It’s best that you sleep on this information. I have the name of a CIA agent; her husband just happens to be quite controversial. This is news I want brought to the public’s attention, and I need assurances you’ll protect my identity, should I reveal it to you. Assuming you’re in-trigued, I’m willing to set up a time to call you back tomorrow.”
Testing the waters, I said, “Are you selling this information?”
“No, my needs are served if the public is informed. Someone is trying to undermine the president. I’m a patriot who doesn’t want to see that continue,” he exclaimed.
“If this is what I think it may be,” I bargained, “ then I’ll need to meet you face-to-face. Is that something you’re willing to commit to?”
His voice grew graver, “This is bigger than I am. And as I have thought about that possibility, I’m willing to do that.” A pause, and then he added, “If I can convince you that I’m a knowledgeable source, someone who’s definitely “in the loop”, then you may want to avoid making yourself a bigger target than is necessary. We’re both protected if you are unable to tell anyone who I am. And, yes, I’m confident I can help you get this news past your editor’s in-evitable objections. I’ll call back tomorrow, midmorning.”
I was left holding a dead phone.
In the car headed home, I couldn’t help but speculate. How was this guy connected? Was I going to learn classified information? Was it publishable? What should I do when any of several legal authorities want to interrogate me? Can I stand this much heat?
My wife was sympathetic to my being late. However, she didn’t like the fact I was so distracted that I made a lousy dinner companion. The stranger had said I should sleep on it, but my questions kept me up half the night.
I freed myself from a meeting scheduled for 9:30 and was ready, tape re-corder running, when he called back around 10.
“Hello, Bob Novak,” I went quiet.
“Good morning, Mr. Novak. I’d like to take up where we left off last eve-ning,” he said.
“That’s agreeable. But would you to tell me what I can call you. You can call me Bob, if you like.”
“OK, Bob,” he said. “Call me Raymond -- as in Raymond Burr. Can we get beyond the need for a face-to-face meeting?”
“That would be a hard sell to my editor if we didn’t meet at least once be-fore going to press,” I fibbed. “I gather you’re in rather a hurry. I have a column coming out in the Times day-after-tomorrow; that’s probably where you’d prefer put your information in the public domain.”
There was a pause. “You seem to have captured the situation in a nut-shell,” he said resignedly. “So let’s meet.” And he gave me the time and place.
My secretary handled rearranging my appointments to permit a break in mid-afternoon. Without intending to be enigmatic, I told Phil my editor that I had a meeting scheduled with an anonymous source and that I expected some ethical issues would emerge, perhaps some legal uncertain-ties/complications as well. He agreed to meet me as soon as I returned.
I took a cab to the meeting place, and then waited. “Raymond” appeared about 10 minutes later. My picture appears next to my column or he would have seen me on a TV panel show. Regardless, he recognized me and introduced himself without hesitation. I won’t describe his appearance; his dress was profes-sional.
He led off. “I have information which is going to rock Washington. If you and your editor decide to publish it, it is of course an exclusive.” He checked for any expression on my part. I merely nodded.
He acknowledged that and continued. “Ambassador Joseph Wilson is probably well-known to you. Would that be correct?”
“I’ve met him on various occasions, none recent, going back fifteen
years or so.” Anticipating him, I added, “On some of those occasions I met his wife briefly as well.”
“Yes, I was going to focus on her next. Valerie Plame is a CIA asset. Hence, she receives assignments which allow her to take advantage of her husband’s overseas travels.”
I didn’t hear what he said next because the many ramifications that ‘out-ing’ Ambassador Wilson’s wife would have stunned me. “Okay, let’s proceed with the assumption I believe you. Obviously, I’ll need to make sure she’s not a mother of several children under 10 or a vice-president of some Fortune 1000 company. Where should I look to verify this?” I challenged.
“You have some contacts at Langley. See where you get with them first. She has no doubt managed to hide the source of her salary and benefits; still, it would be interesting to see what has been picked up by their credit report. She no doubt has a professional resume: the jobs she has listed won’t bear scrutiny, I’ll wager.”
I seized the opportunity: “And where do you work? How did you come by this information?” And “Are you ex-CIA yourself or have you had transactions with her in her CIA capacity?”
He remained silent for a moment. “I can tell you I work for the Executive Branch. I’ve never worked with or for the CIA ... or any other intelligence agency, domestic or foreign. -- I can’t tell you where I got the information, but it reached me less than a week ago. I can’t encourage you to ask any more ques-tions unless and until you get negative confirmation of her CIA role. But you should be able to satisfy yourself through a handful of phone calls.”
One last try. “How will I be able to reach you if I reach a dead-end?”
Raymond made his parting comment. “I have managed to set up an un-listed phone number. The name on the account has been falsified, but you’ll hear my voice on the answering machine. I’ll have it disconnected a week after you publish.”
He proceeded to give me the number, a D.C. exchange. We said our good-byes and parted. I caught a cab back to my office, my mind racing all the way.
At the office, Phil and I sat down in a secure conference room, and I played the latest tape for him. The sound was clearer than I could have hoped, given the pressure I was feeling. Phil listened, questioned me, outlined the pit-falls of publishing information that would end Mrs. Wilson’s CIA career and who would be moving heaven and earth to find out who did the leaking. I gave him my take on the protections a journalist had in protecting his sources. He was cautionary, but gave his approval to follow the leads and see where they took me.
I satisfied myself that I wanted to tell this story ... if I could provide proof that Mrs. Wilson was CIA. Then I went ahead and phoned my contact at Lan-gley. I learned enough to move on obtaining a second confirmation (or non-denial). That accomplished, I went back to see Phil.
Phil and I have had a long, trusting relationship. We see eye-to-eye on most things work-related. He told me how he had done his homework as well: checked with the legal department and huddled with the CEO to make certain all bases were covered. He concluded with two words, “Publish it!”
I wrote the column, and the paper published it the next morning.
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Entering Skidmore -- based on a true, if bizarre, story
Fiction by Steve Johnston and read 6/02/04
“Wish you’d interviewed me back when I was still 13,” I joshed her. “My memory hasn’t improved any in 22 years. That’s about how long it’s been.”
“Heck, it’s 2004, and I’m not yet 15”, she asserted pleasantly. “Anyway, I took up editing the school newspaper cuz I might want to be a reporter some day.”
I couldn’t resist. “You think your father just might give you a job down at his newspaper, do you? (pause) I saw your mother yesterday. Was it she who gave you my name? (pause) Well, I’ll bet that’s what happened.”
“Please go on, Mr. Huber.”
”Let me think now. Skidmore was a lot smaller than it is now. Two hundred eighty-six decent folk and that one misfit. By that I mean Ken Rex McElroy was a bully and a menace. World-class, you might say today. Psychopath that he was, he did quite a bit of lawbreaking throughout the county. Felonies that included burglary, assault, a possible rape, at least one attempted murder, and intimidating witnesses repeatedly. You couldn’t get a charge into court without a key witness changing his story. McElroy had the Devil for a lawyer; the way that fellow delayed justice at every opportunity was criminal in itself. The justice system had broken down something awful.
“Is this the sort of thing you were asking about, Mary Beth?”
“Yeah. But you might describe the guy. Was he hated by practically everyone?”
“McElroy was bigger than average, having been a muscular farm boy. It wasn’t all that difficult to intimidate others -- that’s what I supposed. Had brown hair, a tattoo of a dragon on his left arm, I think. I don’t know how to describe his face, except I remember it was ugly. Eyes that could drill into a person.
“Folks certainly were passionate in their hatred for him. He was the topic of conversation in just about every household and business. Yeah, I’d have to say ‘hate’ was the consensus throughout _____ County.”
“Well, who exactly did it?”
“Never you mind, Mary Beth. I’m not telling any secrets here. Besides, I wasn’t a witness. All the kids like me who should have been in class that day, were. I can tell you few of the facts, because that’s all I know. That’ll have to satisfy you.
“It was a rather hot day for mid-September. Ordinary in every other way, though, as I recall. That afternoon McElroy came into town--”
“Can you back up a bit? He worked, didn’t he? What did he do?”
“After dropping out of high school, he continued working on his father’s farm -- 320 acres, maybe. Even managed it after his father got laid up by a tractor accident; old Mr. McElroy never did work again. After a time, his father’s death gave McElroy the farm, debt-free, as an inheritance. No will was found. Seeing as how his daughter -- McElroy’s only sibling -- had up and moved away about 1965 and never returned, she hadn’t claimed anything.”
“Wasn’t McElroy middle-aged by the time of his death?”
“Well, someone your age might have thought so. I guess he was pretty near 40, give or take a little.”
“Give me just a sec to catch up on my notes, okay? I’m anxious to hear the rest of the story.”
“There isn’t a lot more to tell -- no secrets, remember. McElroy came into town in early afternoon on that ordinary day. He stopped in at the tavern, and that proved fatal. Out of the townspeople emerged some vigilantes, and McElroy was through trying to push someone around. When McElroy came out of the tavern and got behind the wheel of his truck, someone put two rifle slugs in him, through the back window. The first one no doubt killed him, but the lead from the second was wasted in a worthy cause.
“There were witnesses, of course. It happened in broad daylight. But then, I think of it as kind of a public execution. Indeed, so little information did the townspeople give the state authorities and even the FBI ( all outsiders), the ‘someone’ might as well have been wearing a black hood. No one admitted to seeing the shooter; no one confessed to being him either. The sheriff probably could have done more. But everyone seemed to agree no one should go to prison for vigilante justice like that. There were suspects, but in the end, no arrests were ever made. In due time the McElroy farm was sold at auction for back taxes.”
“Anything else, Mr. Huber?”
I made eye contact. “Well, now, wouldn’t it be a scoop if I told you I did it,” I laughed heartily. “Actually, I was in class, as I said.”
“You had me going there, for a heartbeat.”
“I did want to tell you about the sign, the one on Route 17 just at the township limits. It read: Entering Skidmore Pop. 287. Hardly ever was a town so relieved as when that number shrank by one. Maybe it was a bit of mischief on my part, but I took a paintbrush to the sign -- could of been a week later. I crossed out the number and beside it wrote ‘286’. Before the month was over, though, Amy Stone your aunt had healthy twin girls. So I went back and made the ‘6’ into an ‘8’.
Life in Skidmore went on -- a normalcy it hadn’t known in over a decade returned.