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

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Rove in the spotlight

Jul 13th 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda

A scandal over the unmasking of a CIA agent, which has already seen a journalist sent to jail for refusing to reveal her source, is now putting an uncomfortable spotlight on Karl Rove, George Bush’s chief political adviser

UNTIL recently, the questions were largely theoretical. How far does a journalist’s right to protect sources extend? Is the free flow of information more important than a criminal investigation? Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, has gone to jail for refusing to say who revealed the identity of a CIA agent to her, unleashing a flurry of articles on these academic questions. But new revelations in the scandal have dragged the spotlight from journalists back to politicians—and in particular to Karl Rove, President George Bush’s chief political guru.

In 2002, before the Iraq war, a former American ambassador named Joseph Wilson went to Niger for the CIA to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium there. Mr Wilson found the claims bogus, but Mr Bush included the Niger story in his case for going to war nonetheless. In 2003, after the war, Mr Wilson wrote an article denouncing Mr Bush’s use of the Niger claim. Soon after, a conservative columnist, Robert Novak, revealed that Mr Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative.

Mr Novak’s column was meant to undercut Mr Wilson’s article—he suggested that Mr Wilson’s Niger trip came at his wife’s behest, making it seem as though he would not otherwise have been sent. But in disclosing Ms Plame’s identity, Mr Novak moved the story away from Niger and uranium and towards the “senior administration officials” who had told him she was a spy. Whoever revealed this to Mr Novak also, it turned out, told several other journalists including Ms Miller. Ms Plame’s covert career was ruined, seemingly in revenge against Mr Wilson. It looked, at the very least, to be an unusually shameful bit of political street-fighting.

And, potentially, a crime. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 makes it illegal to expose undercover spooks. This put pressure on Mr Bush to appoint a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, to find the leaker. Early speculation centred on several senior aides, but attention was before long firmly focused on Mr Rove. This delighted Democrats, who would dearly love to bring him down. The man known to Mr Bush as “boy genius” and “turd blossom” was the architect of the president’s two election wins, and is credited by friends and enemies alike with almost supernatural powers of political cunning.

How, then, did the trickle of rumours surrounding Mr Rove become a stream and then a flood over the course of the investigation? In his efforts to get to the bottom of things, Mr Fitzgerald sought to have the New York Times’s Ms Miller and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, jailed for refusing to co-operate. Time caved in, releasing Mr Cooper’s e-mails and notes related to the story. These confirmed that he had spoken to Mr Rove. And on Sunday, Newsweek magazine published excerpts from one such e-mail from Mr Cooper to his editor, confirming that Mr Rove told the reporter that Ms Plame worked for “the agency”.

The case is, however, not yet closed, at least not the criminal case. To have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the exposer must be authorised to see classified information, must know the officer is undercover, and must know that the CIA is taking “affirmative measures” to conceal the operative’s identity. Mr Cooper’s e-mail does not make clear Mr Rove knew Ms Plame was undercover. However, the CIA did seem to be taking “affirmative measures” to protect her identity. The agency has since kept her from publishing an article clarifying what happened, saying it could damage their work.

Regardless of whether anyone will be convicted of a crime, the affair has the potential to become highly embarrassing for the Bush administration. Mr Novak spoke of “two senior administration sources” who told him about Ms Plame, meaning the axe could fall not only on the president’s guru but also on another neck. Mr Bush has said he will fire anyone found to have broken the law and take the “appropriate action” against anyone who leaked classified information.

This week saw the first signs that the administration is getting rattled. In tense press conferences on Monday and Tuesday, Scott McClellan, Mr Bush’s press secretary, faced a fusillade of hostile questions from the usually compliant press pool. He responded repeatedly that the administration would not comment on an ongoing investigation. This struck the journalists as particularly fishy, given that Mr McClellan had previously been happy to discuss the affair, categorically denying the involvement of Mr Rove and other advisers. Why the sudden silence?

The administration may be hoping that the less said now, the greater the chance that it will all blow over. If Mr Rove is cleared of breaking the law by the special prosecutor—perhaps because it cannot be proved that he knew Ms Plame was undercover—Mr Bush may decide that the “appropriate action” for leaking secret information is no action at all. The administration that prides itself on its discipline would then look weaselly. But that might seem a better option than admitting any wrongdoing with a sacking, especially of someone as important as Mr Rove. After all, no further investigation into the matter is likely to come from a Republican-dominated Congress. And the battle over Mr Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee—following the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor—has far more long-term political importance than Mr Rove’s fate, and may divert Democrats’ attention from the Plame affair.

But on the other hand, with the Supreme Court fight looming, Democrats may see the Plame affair as an opportunity to weaken Mr Bush at a crucial moment. And the press corps is in high dudgeon, feeling misled by the administration while one of their own is in a prison jumpsuit for protecting an administration source. They are unlikely to let the matter drop.

Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.


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