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

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Rove at War

He rose using tactics his foes are turning against him. But never bet against Karl Rove.

By Howard Fineman
Updated: 2:14 a.m. ET July 17, 2005

July 25 issue - Karl Rove is a hunter. His favorite quarry in Texas is quail; in Washington, it's foes of George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. Rove was focused intently, with a touch of anger, on his prey. It was Monday, July 7, 2003, the day after Joe Wilson, a veteran diplomat, had launched a damaging public assault on a central administration rationale for the war in Iraq: that Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger. In a New York Times op-ed piece and a companion appearance on "Meet the Press," Wilson said he had been dispatched to the African country in 2002 by the CIA, at the behest of Cheney, to check out the yellowcake claim—and had found it flimsy at best.

Now here, in the gun sight of Rove, was a bird in flight. Until then, Wilson had been obscured from view, peddling his story and his doubts—but not his own name—to selected reporters, officials and Hill staffers. The resulting stories had attracted the administration's attention. In May, the State Department's intelligence unit had prepared a secret memorandum about the provenance of Wilson's journey and its classified results—including the curious fact that Wilson's wife, a CIA agent then working on weapons of mass destruction issues, had been involved in planning the mission, and had even suggested that her husband undertake it. Still, there had been no cause to criticize Wilson—let alone mention his wife.

But then Wilson went public. Some prominent administration officials scurried for cover. Traveling in Africa, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had long harbored doubts, disowned the "sixteen words" about Niger that had ended up in Bush's prewar State of the Union speech. So did CIA Director George Tenet, who said they shouldn't have been in the text. But Cheney—who tended never to give an inch on any topic—held firm. And so, therefore, did Rove, who sometimes referred to the vice president as "Leadership." Rove took foreign-policy cues from the pro-war coterie that surrounded the vice president, and was personally and operationally close to Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby.

Soon enough, Rove had drawn a bead on Wilson. The diplomat was a Democrat who had worked on national-security issues in the Clinton administration; he had donated money to Al Gore in 2000. Now, Rove had heard, he was friendly with Sen. John Kerry. Wilson was trying to drag Cheney into the story for partisan reasons—to caricature him as the dark, secret taskmaster of the war. Cheney hadn't dispatched Wilson; the vice president hadn't had anything directly to do with it.

In the World According to Karl Rove, you take the offensive, and stay there. You create a narrative that glosses over complex, mitigating facts to divide the world into friends and enemies, light and darkness, good and bad, Bush versus Saddam. You are loyal to a fault to your friends, merciless to your enemies. You keep your candidate's public rhetoric sunny and uplifting, finding others to do the attacking. You study the details, and learn more about your foes than they know about themselves. You use the jujitsu of media flow to flip the energy of your enemies against them. The Boss never discusses political mechanics in public. But in fact everything is political—and everyone is fair game.

Which now includes Rove. In a familiar Washington twist of fate, Rove's theory of politics is being turned against him—and he is being forced to deploy the Republican machine, which he built on Bush's behalf, for a more personal task: his own defense. A federal prosecutor is now coming to the climax of an investigation into whether any administration official committed a crime by disclosing the identity of a CIA agent—Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame—to reporters. The prosecutor may also be looking at whether anyone lied to the grand jury about the matter—the classic Washington crime of a cover-up. Democrats are in full cry, demanding that Rove be hauled before congressional-committee hearings, stripped of his security clearance, fired outright—or all three.

Beyond the legal drama, the story of the White House's response to the Wilson trip is offering the country that rarest of opportunities in the Age of Bush II: a glimpse of the inner workings of a White House under the management of Karl Rove, the most influential presidential adviser in memory. And while liberals who have long viewed Rove with fear and loathing are gleeful at his current political plight, Rove's own legions are rallying—which means, interestingly, that the harsh culture now pummeling him may in fact save him as Bush's Red soldiers take the field.

Rove's lawyer says that there has been no wrongdoing, and that the prosecutor has told him that Rove is not a "target" of the probe. But this isn't just about the Facts, it's about what Rove's foes regard as a higher Truth: that he is a one-man epicenter of a narrative of Evil. The Manichaean politics that Rove had perfected over three decades now threaten to engulf him, or at least render him as something less than what he has been to Bush: the mastermind of Republican hegemony. "He's in a tough spot, but he is the survivor's survivor," says Frank Luntz, a political consultant for many GOP candidates. Maybe, but Rove is not in control of his own story. For now the author in charge is Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, who seems oblivious to politics altogether.

It's unlikely that any White House officials considered that they were doing anything illegal in going after Joe Wilson. Indeed, the line between national security and politics had long since been all but erased by the Bush administration. In the months after 9/11, the Republican National Committee, a part of Rove's empire, had sent out a fund-raising letter that showed the president aboard Air Force One in the hours after the attack. Democrats howled, but that was the Bush Rove was selling in the re-election campaign: commander in chief. Now Wilson was getting in the way of that glorious story, essentially accusing the administration of having blundered or lied the country into war.

How do you publicly counter a guy like that? As "senior adviser," Rove would be involved in finding out. Technically, Rove was in charge of politics, not "communications." But, as he saw it, the two were one and the same—and he used his heavyweight status to push the message machine run by his Texas protegé and friend, Dan Bartlett. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was sent out to trash the Wilson op-ed. "Zero, nada, nothing new here," he said. Then, on a long Bush trip to Africa, Fleischer and Bartlett prompted clusters of reporters to look into the bureaucratic origins of the Wilson trip. How did the spin doctors know to cast that lure? One possible explanation: some aides may have read the State Department intel memo, which Powell had brought with him aboard Air Force One.

Meanwhile, in transatlantic secure phone calls, the message machinery focused on a crucial topic: who should carry the freight on the following Sunday's talk shows? The message: protect Cheney by explaining that he had had nothing to do with sending Wilson to Niger, and dismiss the yellowcake issue. Powell was ruled out. He wasn't a team player, as he had proved by his dismissive comments about the "sixteen words." Donald Rumsfeld was pressed into duty, as was Condi Rice, the ultimate good soldier. She was on the Africa trip with the president, though, and wouldn't be getting back until Saturday night. To allow her to prepare on the long flight home to D.C., White House officials assembled a briefing book, which they faxed to the Bush entourage in Africa. The book was primarily prepared by her National Security Council staff. It contained classified information—perhaps including all or part of the memo from State. The entire binder was labeled top secret.

Back in Washington, busying himself mainly with the task of sketching the outlines of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, Rove—patient bird hunter that he is—waited in the duck blind of his West Wing office. His first chance to take a shot arrived on Wednesday, July 9, when he spoke to a journalist with whom he had done business since the 1970s—Bob Novak. In 1992, in fact, Rove had been banished from Bush I's re-election campaign after he was fingered (wrongly, both men insisted) as a source for a Novak column about Republican unrest in Texas. What did Rove make of the story, which Novak had gotten from what he later called a person who was "no partisan gunslinger," that Wilson had been sent to Niger at the behest of his wife, Valerie Plame?

Rove's reply is in dispute. According to a later column written by Novak, Rove said, "Oh, you know about it." Rove's version, made public by a source close to him, is less solid: "I heard that, too." Whatever the exact words were, they were good enough to give Novak the confirmation he thought he needed. Citing two senior administration officials, he wrote a piece—with Wilson's wife's name—for release nationwide the next Monday.

Rove's next and last shot came in a brief, end-of-the-week call from Matt Cooper of Time magazine. As NEWSWEEK has reported, Cooper later wrote an e-mail to his bureau chief, saying that Rove had tried to wave him off the Wilson story—and mentioned Wilson's wife in the process: "it was, KR said, wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on WMD issues who authorized the trip," Cooper's e-mail read. Cooper would write about the matter online the following week, after the Novak article appeared. (Rove did not initially discuss the conversation with Cooper in his first interview with the FBI, a source close to Rove, who declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, told NEWSWEEK. But Rove later testified about it, the source said.) That weekend, the talk-show soldiers did their duty. Rumsfeld drew the fire on other issues; Condi did her best to distance the vice president from the Wilson trip.

Missions accomplished. Except for a few little details. Under a 1982 law, it's a felony to intentionally disclose the name of a "covered" agent with the intent to harm national security. Under another, older statute, it could also be a felony to willfully disclose information from a classified document—which the State Department memo and, apparently, the Condi briefing book were. There is no indication that Rove saw the briefing book (Rumsfeld didn't get one) or that anyone disclosed classified information. But no one in the administration seems to have noticed the irony—or the legal danger—in assembling a top secret briefing book as guidance for the Sunday talk shows. Exactly what papers with what classifications were floating around on Air Force One? Who, if anyone, was dipping into them for info about the Wilson trip?

And if Rove knew Plame's identity, as Novak says, how did Rove learn it? A source close to Rove has said Rove never saw the State memo. The same source told NEWSWEEK last week that Rove "doesn't remember" where he heard the crucial information about Wilson's wife. But, the source said, Rove is "pretty sure he heard it directly or indirectly from a media source." The source close to Rove later acknowledged that Rove had been questioned by investigators about conversations he may have had with Libby, Cheney's chief of staff. Rove couldn't recall any specific exchange with Libby about Wilson's wife, the source said. A spokeswoman for the vice president's office said Libby would have no comment. Fitzgerald declined to comment.

If the polarities were reversed—if this were a Democratic White House—these are the kinds of breach-of-security questions for which Rove would be demanding swift answers. Which party was for protecting the shadow warriors in the war on terror? Rove —would want to know.

So would Richard Nixon, Rove's first political hero. For boys of a certain place and time—including the Salt Lake City of the 1950s and '60s—Nixon was a haunted hero, a permanently embattled, commie-fighting Republican who had no use for weak-kneed swells and who stood for decency and Main Street values. As a boy, Rove—like many another conservative kid of the baby boom—was initially drawn toward politics by Nixon, and by the apocalyptic, anti-communist message of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover. WAKE UP, AMERICA! proclaimed a sign above Rove's boyhood bed.

Rove's father was an oil geologist, and it was perhaps from him that Rove got both his sense of history and his almost manic love of detail. You measured time in eons, but you found evidence with a magnifying glass. One of five kids, a voracious reader with a vaulting sense of ambition, Rove wanted to be president—or at least be able to debate like one. Nixon and Jack Kennedy had squared off dramatically in 1960. Karl was only 9 but eventually became a mainstay of the debate team, carrying a box full of notecards of "research." To intimidate his foes, Rove would arrive with what looked like thousands of notecards, most of which were blank. The real ones were carefully chosen, and Rove knew how to use them.

Like an entire generation of baby-boom conservatives, Rove's political boot camp was the College Republicans, which, in his case, was something of a misnomer, since he dropped out of the University of Utah to join them in the late '60s. They were under the aegis of the Nixon White House, a tie that may have augmented the usual adolescent urge to dabble in dirty tricks. Rove did his share—stealing campaign stationery and inviting the world to a Democratic beer bash was one—but the CRs were important to him for other reasons. They gave him a sense of order and belonging, which he may well have needed. His dad walked out in 1969; in 1970, he learned that he and a brother had been fathered by someone other than the man he had called Dad. (Eleven years later, his mother committed suicide.)

The CRS led rove to understand the power of ideas in politics—and to his fateful first meeting with the man who would become his partner in public life, George W. Bush. Ostensibly pragmatic Nixonites, the CRs' real heroes were Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, as Rove realized when his bid to lead the group ran into a wall of conservative opposition. He ultimately prevailed, thanks to an administrative ruling by George H.W. Bush, who chaired the adult Republican National Committee. The two became friends. On Thanksgiving in 1973, Bush, through an aide, asked Rove to take the family car keys to Union Station and give them to his son, who was arriving from his first semester at Harvard Business School. Rove recalls the scene in a kind of gauzy cinematic slow-mo: "He was wearing jeans, and a bomber jacket, and he had an aura of confidence and charisma," Rove once told NEWSWEEK. Rove's dreams of becoming president ended there—but that is also probably where George W. Bush's career began.

In retrospect, the road from there to here is as straight as a West Texas highway. Rove and Bush were on the move in Texas in the mid-'70s, Bush to the oil business, Rove to consulting. In the early years, Rove made more money than Bush by getting involved in the then new business of direct mail. Combining his geeky loves—technology, granular political detail and hard-hitting rhetoric —he learned to fashion carefully targeted, incendiary fund-raising letters that could (and did) raise millions. Direct mail remains the key to understanding Rove's approach to politics: minutely targeted, upbeat when possible, apocalyptic as needed. (The mailbag Manichaeanism can get ugly, as it did in New York recently, where Rove crudely accused post-9/11 liberals of merely wanting to "prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.")

It didn't take Rove long in Texas to conclude that the state's tectonic plates were shifting in a Republican direction. The key was to combine the pro-business money of corporate Houston and Dallas with the conservative values—and the Bible-belt traditionalism—of rural (and, up to that point, Democratic) small-town Texas. How? By the early 1990s, Rove had his plan and his man: George W. Bush, whose incandescent personality and "compassionate conservatism" covered both flanks. Rove made it Bush's business to get right with the religious right, but not so much on theology as good works. The idea was to replace government-run welfare and education with church-based charity, saving money and souls at the same time, and not to run as a foe of government per se but as a "reformer" of it.

On the way to Austin and then to Washington, Bush and Rove developed a relationship unlike any other in modern politics. They were brothers, but not quite; master and servant, but not quite; king and court jester, but not quite—and tied together by what looks like an unshakable bond of mutual loyalty. Outsiders thought it might be tested after Bush was clobbered in the 2000 New Hampshire primary by John McCain. Rove had badly underestimated the senator there. In similar situations, handlers have offered to resign. Asked by NEWSWEEK if he would do so, Rove exploded in a mix of derision, pity and anger. "I can't believe you're asking that!" he shouted. "Of course not!"

Later that week, on a campaign bus rolling through South Carolina, Bush and Rove—now a comedy act—pretended to replay their own responses on election night, rolling their eyes and collapsing "drunk" in their bus seats. "We've lost by twenty damn points!" Rove said, as if talking to Bush on the phone. "Dammit, Karl, you've ruined everything!" Bush yelled back. The good ole boys onboard didn't know what to make of the scene. But allies elsewhere in upstate South Carolina knew what to do. They employed every nasty accusation and rumor in the book to discredit and defeat McCain.

And Bush and Rove are still together. As news spread of Rove's chats with Novak and Cooper, Democrats turned up the heat. But while the president did not defend his buddy in so many words—saying that he would wait for the Fitzgerald probe to end—Bush kept Rove by his side in photo ops in and around the White House. On a Bush trip to North Carolina, Rove clowned in his manic way with reporters—behavior of the kind he tends to display when he feels under pressure.

At the same time, the GOP machine he had built began clanking into gear. Rove has friends all over town, and the country—people he's put in office and, with ruthless efficiency, into key government and lobbying jobs. But they were slow to react, perhaps in part because the apparatus is built to attack more than defend. Last Monday, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, was seared to a crisp during his press briefing. Only the following day did GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman—whose entire career is a Rove creation—respond. Some of the party talking points had a vaguely Clintonesque feel to them: that Rove was merely trying to help the reporters, that he never actually mentioned Valerie Plame's name, that he didn't call the reporters, they had called him. The Democrats, eager to seize the rare piece of high ground on a national-security issue, kept up the fire. But since they have no subpoena power on the Hill—Rove's GOP is in charge there—they can't call him to testify. And the louder the Democrats screamed, the easier it was for Rove and his allies to dismiss the whole affair as just another Red-Blue partisan smackdown.

As for Rove, friends say that he was shaken by the speed with which the Wilson story moved—and in a direction he didn't expect. He's used to being in control. But now all Rove can do is mark time until someone else—Patrick Fitzgerald—says what comes next. After his re-election victory last November, Bush called Rove the "Architect." Now the hunter has to wait with everyone else to see if he has become the hunted.

With Michael Isikoff, Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.


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