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

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Rove affair: So is it `frog-march' time yet?

Clarence Page

July 17, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Now we know why it is called "spin." Your head could spin around from all of the information and disinformation swirling around disclosures that Karl Rove did, indeed, leak the identity of a CIA agent to at least one reporter.

As I boil it all down, there are three big questions:

1. Did Rove commit a crime?

2. Criminal or not, did he do anything morally or ethically wrong?

3. Who lied about it?

Background: Back in July 2003, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed that embarrassed the White House into a big concession: Assertions about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Niger should not have been included in President Bush's State of the Union address. Wilson knew because he had been sent to Niger to investigate the allegation.

A week after his op-ed appeared, columnist Robert Novak identified Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, by name as the "CIA operative" behind Wilson's mission.

A week after that, MSNBC's Chris Matthews quoted Rove as saying "Wilson's wife is fair game."

The next month, Wilson commented sarcastically that he would not mind seeing "Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

Rove's idea apparently was to distance the Bush White House from Wilson's Niger mission. In fact, it turns out, Plame was not just any old operative but an agent, which means the leak of her identity by a government official could violate federal law, besides jeopardizing her job and life.

As it turned out, the CIA did send Wilson to Niger in response to questions from Vice President Dick Cheney's office about an intelligence report that referred to the alleged Niger sale. Wilson's wife, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, lacked the authority to send her husband, but she did suggest him, because he was a former ambassador to the region.

Question 1: Did Rove commit a crime?

Hardly anyone but a partisan for one side or the other would even try to answer that question with a straight "yes" or "no," which has not stopped a lot of partisans from doing just that on talk shows.

The real answer will come clear when Patrick Fitzgerald, the tough special prosecutor named by the Justice Department at the urging of the White House, the CIA and Congress, returns some indictments or, at least, a final report. Fitzgerald would have to show that Rove knowingly revealed Plame's identity as a CIA agent, breaking the law and possibly endangering her life.

But, is "Bush's brain" about to be fired, as leading Democrats have demanded? Not likely, unless he is convicted. Indictment would bring a leave of absence. There has probably been no president as closely attached to a political adviser since President William McKinley and his key adviser, Mark Hanna, Rove's role model.

If anyone will squeeze every bit of evidence out of this investigation, it is Fitzgerald. He urged jail time, not house arrest, for New York Times reporter Judith Miller after she refused to say who revealed Plame's identity to her for a story Miller never wrote.

I, for one, was appalled by Fitzgerald's extreme pursuit of Miller's source, especially since she never wrote a story. But no one can accuse the special prosecutor of trying to suck up to the press.

Question 2: Did Rove do anything morally or ethically wrong?

Morals? Ethics? Hardball political operatives say "Ha." In their world, the meaning of such words is as slippery as the greasy ground beneath their feet. After all, "Wilson's wife is fair game."

Question 3: Who's lying?

President Bush has wisely clammed up, saying it wouldn't be proper to comment on an ongoing investigation. But more than once in October 2003 his spokesman Scott McClellan called any involvement by Rove in the leak "a ridiculous suggestion." After speaking with Rove and other individuals under suspicion in the White House, McClellan said, "those individuals assured me they were not involved in this."

After Rove's lawyer confirmed his leak to Time magazine, McClellan clammed up, except to come up with endless variations on "no comment" as White House reporters bombarded him with questions.

Perhaps he will use President Richard Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler's, memorable line from a Watergate-era briefing: "This is the operative statement. The old statements are inoperative."

That reminds us of what the real Rove scandal might be: This administration's willful pattern of shutting up any dissenting voices like Wilson's and shutting out any disagreeable facts, like the ones Wilson presented to the CIA, in the administration's headstrong run-up to war with Iraq.

That's not an indictable offense, as far as I can tell, but it's worth investigating. It's worth looking back at how our country got into Iraq, now that we're trying to find a way out.



Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune


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