News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Monday, July 25, 2005 - The Rove problem - Jul 25, 2005

By Nancy Gibbs

Valerie Plame had no reason to welcome a reporter into her home last week. Reporters tell stories and trade secrets, and her life, once a state secret, had become one of the most widely told stories in years. As if anyone could resist it: beautiful blond mother of two whose identity as a CIA spy is compromised by a political vendetta against her husband.

She opens the door of her brick house on the leafy Washington side street, a few turns from the German embassy. A Jaguar convertible sits in the driveway, the toys and bikes in the garage. There are children playing on the floor inside, and her look is icy as she asks, "Is my husband expecting you?" A British journalist had recently turned up at the door unannounced, and she's still angry. "I almost tackled you," she admits to TIME's Massimo Calabresi, and you have to wonder what a trained covert operative who was known as a crack shot with an AK-47 would care to do at the moment to the reporters and Administration officials who had laid her secret bare.

But she seems harmless now as she goes about making her grocery list. It's not as if she's a woman of mystery anymore: she has gone back to work at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after a leave of absence; she has been photographed for Vanity Fair, snapped at the Tribeca Film Festival; she has stood beside her flamboyant husband, the former ambassador, bestselling author, all-around gadfly Joe Wilson, as he accepted accolades from liberal groups for being among the first to puncture President George W. Bush's case for war. But her friends at the agency tell TIME that the furor around her "destroyed her career. And it's put her at risk." All she'll say is, "Things have been busy. I have 5-year-old twins."

Nor is it a mystery any longer who had a hand in revealing where Wilson's wife worked to TIME White House correspondent Matthew Cooper and at least confirming it for columnist Robert Novak. Wilson had never been shy about his suspicions: he had dreamed aloud of seeing the President's chief strategist Karl Rove "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." Only now it was official: last Wednesday, Cooper had testified to the grand jury investigating the leak that it was indeed Rove who told him Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, though without using her name.

That Rove was a secret source was already public knowledge after Newsweek published the contents of one of Cooper's e-mails that Time Inc. had given to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald after resisting all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the company's appeal.

But that does not mean that all the mysteries are solved, or that Rove will be tarred and feathered and fired. This has always been a tale in which what is not known is as important as what is, and so the spotlight shifts once more, to Fitzgerald and what he has learned about the motives and methods behind the outing of Valerie Plame.

It is no longer clear even what crime he is investigating: the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act makes it a federal offense to intentionally reveal a covert operative's identity. But the law was designed to be hard to break, and last week lawyers with knowledge of the case suggested that Fitzgerald might be investigating a different crime--perhaps perjury or obstruction of justice.

It had to be something serious, they suggested, for Fitzgerald to have interviewed the President and Vice President, to have threatened Cooper with prison time if he didn't testify and to have insisted that New York Times reporter Judith Miller go to jail for contempt of court when she refused to. Much about Fitzgerald's hunt is still a secret: in the court ruling demanding that the reporters reveal who leaked Plame's name, several pages were blacked out for national-security reasons.

In the vacuum of facts, partisans on both sides headed straight for their armories; it felt like five years of political warfare in concentrated form. Naturally it would feature Rove, as brass-knuckled a player as has walked onstage in a generation. But in addition there was John Kerry, promoting a Fire Rove petition on his Web site. There was Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman declaring that it was not Plame or Wilson but Rove who was the victim of "blatant partisan political attacks." There was White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who had once called the notion that Rove was involved "ridiculous," looking like a piñata as he refused again and again in long and painful press conferences to comment on the implications of Rove's being a source for reporters.

President Bush, who had vowed to fire anyone in his Administration who turned out to have leaked the name of Wilson's wife and blown her cover, was left declaring that "this is a serious investigation" and had nothing to say for the moment about Rove.

And all the while, Rove's defenders were artfully pivoting from saying he hadn't done anything to saying he hadn't done anything wrong, that Plame wasn't really a secret agent anyway, or if she was, Rove didn't know that, or if he did, he only brought her up because he was trying to keep reporters from writing a bad story based on Wilson's false charges, and besides, it was a reporter who blew Plame's cover to him in the first place and not the other way around.

The whole thing felt at times like a half-glimpsed game of charades; but the fight matters because the issues at stake matter: the ongoing struggle between the Administration and the intelligence community, the debate over the case for going to war, the tensions over the role and rights of a free press, the eternal distinctions between what is legal and what is right. Until Fitzgerald issues his report, there will be no way to know if anyone committed a crime. But in the meantime, there is plenty of evidence of recklessness, ruthlessness and political passion that have made the search for the truth all that much harder.

Roves Repertoire
In the long and lively mythology of Karl Rove, whom Republicans see as a fearless gladiator and Democrats view as the kind of operative who would put a tarantula under an opponent's pillow, it is entirely plausible that he would try to discredit an adversary by any means necessary. But outing a spy? Compromising national security in wartime? It was the first President Bush who once described anyone who exposed intelligence assets as "the most insidious of traitors."

Rove had long insisted that he didn't know Valerie Plame's name or leak it and was cooperating fully with the probe. By last week, that denial had come to seem Clintonian in its legal precision. It's true Rove didn't tell Cooper her name but rather referred to her as Wilson's wife. On the other hand, a simple Google search of Ambassador Wilson turned up her name but not her affiliation. The evolving explanation of Rove's role was enough to let Democrats dream that they might have snared him at long last, while Republicans retorted that, far from incriminating Rove, the latest evidence exonerated him.

Part of what has made Rove a legend is his passion for his work. He is not the kind of political professional who does battle during the day and then breaks bread with his adversary at night. When Rove assails an opponent, he believes what he's saying. And it may be his capacity for convincing himself that his adversaries are vile, corrupt, dangerous and stupid that makes the job of destroying them come so easily. So when Joe Wilson emerged in July 2003 as a well-credentialed critic of the Administration's case for going to war, he placed himself squarely in Rove's sights.

Here was a former ambassador, an Africa expert, who could flaunt his pictures with past Presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike--including one with President George H.W. Bush, who had called Wilson a hero for his service as chargé d'affaires in Baghdad before the first Gulf War.

When Wilson wrote in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, nearly four months after the war began, that "intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat," it represented the most damaging charge yet against the Administration's handling of prewar intelligence. Wilson explained that CIA officials recruited him to help them answer questions raised by Vice President Cheney's office about an intelligence report documenting the attempted sale of uranium yellowcake by Niger to Iraq. The officials asked him to travel to Niger in February 2002 "to check out the story."

His article suggested that when he failed to come up with answers the Administration wanted, they ignored his findings, since Bush went on to claim in his January 2003 State of the Union message that according to British intelligence, Iraq had recently sought uranium from Africa.

Wilson's charge that top officials had deliberately distorted his findings set off a furor in Washington. Fitzgerald has set out to learn how it was that a week after the column appeared, Wilson's wife's cover was blown. How did people in the White House learn of her status and connection to Wilson in the first place, who shared it, and how did it come to be discussed with reporters? Fitzgerald has shown particular interest, legal sources told TIME, in a classified State Department memo that was forwarded to the White House the day after Wilson's article appeared. It was marked for delivery to then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was traveling with the President to Africa that day.

The memo, originally dated June 10, 2003, identified Plame and discussed her role in recommending her husband for the mission to Niger. It had been written by the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research at the request of former Under Secretary Marc Grossman after the New York Times and Washington Post began reporting on an intelligence-gathering trip to Niger by a former U.S. diplomat, without naming Wilson. Sending it to Powell "was directly in response to Wilson going public," says a senior Republican Hill aide familiar with the document. "[It was] ... one of those what-the-hell-is-this-guy-saying-and-what-is-he-talking-about? memos."

Fitzgerald has shown at least a part of the memo to some of the subjects of the investigation with the appropriate security clearance, asking if they had ever seen it before. The prosecutor believes that the memo circulated among officials aboard Air Force One, according to sources familiar with Fitzgerald's line of questioning. Some traveling reporters to Africa were told on background that Wilson was sent to Niger by a low-level staff member at the CIA. At one point, White House officials on the trip were saying, "Look who sent him," as if to spur reporters to dig deeper.

According to sources close to the investigation, Fitzgerald seemed most interested in whether officials who stayed at the White House while the President was in Africa also had the memo that week, when the first known calls to reporters took place. Details of the memo, if not the memo itself, may have been shared with one or more White House officials well before Wilson's article appeared.

Rove and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, have told prosecutors they had never seen the document, according to sources familiar with their statements. But Rove had learned Plame's identity from someone: a source who has been briefed on Rove's account to Fitzgerald, says Novak called Rove the next day, July 8, and mentioned to him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. According to the source, Rove replied, "I've heard that too," and told Fitzgerald that he had heard it from a reporter--or perhaps from someone else in the Administration who said he got it from a reporter--Rove just couldn't be certain or remember which one.

All through that week, the Administration was on damage control. On Friday, July 11, CIA Director George Tenet took the heat by declaring that the CIA should not have okayed the uranium claim in the State of the Union address. On that day, Rove took a call from Cooper, who was in his first weeks as a White House correspondent for TIME. "Spoke to Rove on double super secret background," Cooper e-mailed TIME's Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy and his deputy James Carney afterward. "... his big warning....don't get too far out on wilson."

Cooper wrote that Rove disparaged Wilson for presenting a "flawed" and "suspect" explanation of the genesis of the trip. What's more, Rove told Cooper, neither Cheney nor the CIA director had authorized Wilson's mission in the first place--a claim Wilson never made, although the former ambassador would imply that the two knew of his trip. Cooper described the conversation with Rove, adding that it was "wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues, who authorized the trip. ... he implied strongly there's still plenty to implicate iraqi interest in acquiring uranium from Niger ... don't get too far out front, he warned. then he bolted ..."

What was the point of Rove or anyone else bringing up Plame in the first place? Was he saying Wilson was tainted by his close association with the CIA, whose analysts had generally been too skeptical of the Iraqi threat for the administration's taste?

The tensions between the White House and the CIA had been rising steadily in the months before the Iraq invasion, as CIA analysts complained about evidence being distorted or ignored and the White House pushed back with complaints about the quality of the intel they were getting. "I know the analyst who was subjected to withering questioning on the Iraq-- al-Qaeda links by Libby with the Vice President sitting there," says a CIA analyst. "So I think there was an anger at the CIA for not getting it and not being on board. The political side of the Administration was pissed at the CIA. So I can see how they responded to that--and Wilson--by implying he couldn't be trusted because, 'well, just look where his wife works.'"

Or, more personally, was Rove suggesting that Wilson was chosen not for his expertise but because his wife was trying to help him stay in the game? Certainly Rove distorted her role when he claimed she had authorized the trip. "She was not in a position to send Joe Wilson anywhere except to bed without his supper," says Larry Johnson, a Plame classmate at the CIA who later worked on Central American issues for the agency and then moved to the State Department as a counterterrorism officer. According to a declassified July 7, 2004, report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was Plame's boss, the deputy chief of the CIA's counterproliferation division, who authorized the trip. He did so after Plame "offered up" her husband's name for the Niger mission, according to the report. In a February 12, 2002, memo to her boss, Plame wrote that "my husband has good relations with both the PM [Prime Minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity."

That means Wilson was also shading the story: "Valerie had nothing to do with the matter," he wrote in his 2004 book The Politics of Truth. "She definitely had not proposed that I make the trip." When asked last week by TIME if he still denies that she was the origin of his involvement in the trip, he avoided answering. But he has maintained all along that Administration officials conducted a "smear job" on him and outed his wife in revenge.

Not so, insisted Rove's surrogates last week when asked to explain why he was talking about a covert operative at all. His warning to Cooper, Rove's lawyer Robert Luskin told TIME, was not meant to encourage Cooper to write about Plame; it was meant to deter him from writing credulously about Wilson or at least from lending weight to charges that Cheney's office had deliberately ignored Wilson's findings. "What he was trying to do was discourage Cooper from printing allegations about the Vice President that were going to be proven false," Luskin says. While it was true that the Administration ultimately had to retract their claims about yellowcake, Wilson was seen as overstating the importance of his mission; the yellowcake charge should not have been in the President's speech because the evidence remained inconclusive. CIA officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Wilson's trip had not resolved the yellowcake question one way or the other. Cheney denied on Meet the Press that he knew of Wilson's mission or had been briefed by him. Furthermore, had Rove intended for Cooper to circulate any information about Wilson's wife, "he certainly would not have extracted a promise that the discussions were super double secret," Luskin notes with a laugh, referring to Cooper's phrase.

What does it matter who put Plame's identity in play? That reporters may have been part of a loop of information, not just receivers of it, has for some time been one of the hypotheses in the case. The Washington Post reported that Libby, who has been interviewed by the grand jury three times, learned Plame's name from a reporter too. NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert spoke with Fitzgerald under oath in August about a call from Libby, who gave Russert clearance to testify about their talk. Russert says he told Fitzgerald that he was not Libby's source.

From legal and political angles, it looks better if Administration officials were leakees, not leakers. If the blame for blowing the cover of a CIA officer can be spread around, so much the better. And it suggests the challenge that Fitzgerald may face in building a case. It is one thing if Rove happened to hear from a reporter that Plame was a CIA officer, casually confirmed that he had already heard that to another reporter (Novak) and incidentally spread the word to a third (Cooper). It's perhaps something else if Administration officials made an effort to gather information on Wilson, discovered that his wife was a CIA officer and carried out a strategy to discredit Wilson that included outing his wife to a number of reporters. It is still another thing to do the second and pretend, under oath, that you had done the first.

How much damage?
For all the speculation about Rove's fate and despite a failed attempt by Senate Democrats to have Rove's security clearance revoked, within the White House there was little sign of panic. "They think Karl is bulletproof," says a former Administration official who is familiar with the issue and the players. "They think, 'We won a second term. We control Congress.' They don't think Karl is in any real jeopardy."

But even if Rove skates past any legal trouble, that still leaves the question of means and ends. Although Democrats deplored what they viewed as an Administration attempt to silence its critics, to the intelligence community what mattered was that in the course of political warfare, a spy had been sacrificed. Plame was one of the rare operatives to become an NOC, that is, a CIA employee who operates under nonofficial cover. Such officers, who may pose as businesspeople or students, have no diplomatic immunity and so are much more vulnerable if caught spying. They often work abroad for U.S. companies that have secret agreements with the CIA to take them in as employees or for front companies the agency sets up. A former CIA station chief tells TIME that it can cost the agency anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to establish an NOC overseas, depending on how deep and extensive the cover must be.

CIA sources say Plame held highly sensitive jobs during the past two decades. In the late 1990s she was serving as an NOC, working as an analyst with Brewster-Jennings & Associates, a CIA front company that has been shut down. "She was pretty and had brains and ambition and loyalty," says a former clandestine officer who worked with her. "Everything was there." But in 1997 she moved back to Washington. The New York Times has reported that the CIA feared that her cover had been blown to the Russians by double agent Aldrich Ames. Her marriage to a high-profile former diplomat further limited her ability to fly under the radar. She began working at CIA headquarters in Langley, assigned to the directorate of operations, the CIA'S clandestine branch that manages its human spying overseas and is one of the agency's most secretive directorates. "NOCs aren't supposed to come into the building," said Fred Rustmann, a former senior CIA official and a Plame superior. "It doesn't serve cover well. It may serve the moment. They break the rules for expediency. In Valerie's case, she's a bright young woman. She has some experience in nuclear proliferation."

Thus Rove's defenders have claimed that he can hardly be guilty of outing a spy who was effectively outed already. "She was done," says a senior Republican Senate aide when asked whether Plame's career had been damaged by the disclosure of her covert identity. "She'd had her two kids. She'd come back to headquarters. And how do you maintain your cover when your husband is saying, I was sent on a mission by the CIA?"

But while she may no longer have been a clandestine operative, she was still under protected status. A U.S. official told TIME that Plame was indeed considered covert for the purposes of the Intelligence Identities Protection law. And even if the leak was not illegal, intelligence officials argue, it is not defensible. "I'm beyond disgusted," a CIA official said last week. I am especially angry about the b_______ explanations that she is not a covert agent. That is an official status, and there are lots of people in this building who are on that status. It's not up to the Republican Party to determine when that status will end for an agent."

Whatever the damage to Plame, there remains the cost paid by the CIA generally. In the wake of the disclosure, foreign intelligence services were known to have retraced her steps and contacts to discover more about how the CIA operates in their countries. Outside of a James Bond movie, spies rarely steal secrets themselves; they recruit foreigners to do it for them. That often means bribing a government official to break his country's laws and pass state secrets to the CIA. "It becomes extremely hard if you're working overseas and recruiting [foreign] agents knowing that some sloth up in the Executive Branch for political reasons can reveal your identity," says Jim Marcinkowski, who served four years in the agency and is now the deputy city attorney for Royal Oak, Michigan "Certainly this kind of information travels around the world very quickly. And it raises the level of fear of coming in contact with the United States for any reason." On the other hand, some critics charge that the agency tends to overstate the value of its undercover operations, whose lapses in recent years have certainly been the subject of much debate.

Naturally that's not how Joe Wilson sees it. Back at the house, he has lit a cigar and is sitting on the back porch, claiming vindication while defending himself against charges that all along he has been a partisan hack with an agenda and not a whistle-blower who ran afoul of the White House. "To have my character and integrity impugned not on facts but on the volume of their voice and blast faxes and blast e-mails is beyond the pale," he says. "All Americans should worry about a government that reacts in such a fashion." Later in the conversation, he offers, unsolicited, two copies of his book, one of which he inscribes to Matt Cooper. Asked how it's doing, he says, "Really well," and glances at the spot on the cover where it says The New York Time Best Seller. "And it's going to do even better in the next three months."

Reported by Timothy J. Burger, Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, Sally B. Donnelly, Viveca Novak and Douglas Waller/ Washington

Copyright © 2005 Time Inc.


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