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

Monday, July 18, 2005

Rove's backers deployed on defense

By Dick Polman/ Phildelphia Inquirer

Inquirer Political Analyst

The vaunted Republican message machine, built over the last five years by Karl Rove, is now being employed to defend Karl Rove.

Stung by evidence that President Bush's political guru may have participated in the leaking of classified information - by allegedly helping to blow the cover of an undercover CIA operative who is married to a prominent Iraq war critic - Rove's surrogates, armed with identical talking points, are arguing his innocence in orchestrated e-mails, on radio shows, the floor of Congress, conservative blogs, the Republican National Committee Web site, Fox News talkfests, and even the Sunday morning circuit.

Republican chairman Ken Mehlman, a top Rove protege, drew the NBC assignment yesterday. It did not go smoothly, which was no surprise, given the tricky nature of his mission.

Back in autumn 2003, the White House had declared it was "totally ridiculous" to suggest that Rove had any involvement that summer with leaking the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, as possible retaliation against her husband, former Iraq Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly (and accurately) disputed a key Bush rationale for war. Conservative columnist Robert Novak had used her name in print, and reporter Matt Cooper, writing in Time magazine, had identified her as Wilson's wife. But now, in the wake of disclosures over the last week, it is clear that Rove spoke to both Novak and Cooper.

Yesterday, Mehlman insisted on Meet the Press that these disclosures mean nothing. In fact, he said that this new information, which became public in connection with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's probe into possible White House wrongdoing, "actually vindicates and exonerates" Rove. He said that Rove was never a source on Plame. He said that Rove basically learned about Plame from the journalists, and not the other way around.

But the record contradicts his arguments.

Cooper told NBC yesterday that when he testified last week to Fitzgerald's grand jury, he made it clear that he first learned of Plame's CIA employment from Rove. And Novak, who has dealt with Rove since the 1970s, has indicated in print that Rove confirmed information that Novak already had about Plame. (At the CIA, she was an NOC - "nonofficial cover" - sifting information on weapons of mass destruction. She worked with a front group, set up by the CIA, to make it appear that she was an energy analyst.)

Mehlman failed to address Cooper's sworn statement that he had learned the information from Rove. And when confronted with the fact that Rove had also spoken with Novak, Mehlman replied: "He was not Bob Novak's initial source." When it was pointed out that Rove had, at minimum, confirmed the Plame material as a second source, Mehlman dismissed the interaction between Rove and Novak as merely "a chat going on."

What's now on record, courtesy of pro-Rove leakers close to the Fitzgerald inquiry, is that Rove confirmed Novak's information by telling the columnist that he had heard the same stuff elsewhere. But that means Rove may have violated the Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement, a document known as SF 312 that must be signed by any administration official who receives a national security clearance.

Here's a provision: "Information remains classified until it has been officially declassified... . Before disseminating the information elsewhere or confirming the accuracy of what appears in the public source, the signer of SF 312 must confirm through an authorized official that the information has, in fact, been declassified. If it has not, further dissemination of the information, or confirmation of its accuracy, is also an unauthorized disclosure."

Mehlman, asked about this, said it's wrong to assume that Plame's CIA status was classified. But that remark is contradicted by the record.

In the summer of 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department - acting on a request from the CIA - agreed to launch a probe of the leak because the department agreed with the CIA's argument that Plame's status, as an NOC staffer, had been classified. (This is the investigation that led to the hiring of Fitzgerald, who became a U.S. attorney in northern Illinois as a result of Republican sponsorship.)

On CBS's Face the Nation yesterday, another Rove surrogate took a whack at the same issue. Rep. Roy Blunt, a senior House Republican from Missouri, basically said that even if the Plame material is still classified, maybe it shouldn't be. He suggested that maybe the CIA is "overzealous" about keeping its information under wraps. "Often the CIA classifies things as top secret that really don't need to be top secret," he said.

In addition to defending Rove, the GOP message is aimed at shifting the spotlight from him to the Democrats who are calling for his head - which makes sense politically, because the Rove message machine has long been designed to attack, not to defend.

Mehlman said that Democrats in Congress owed Rove an apology. When Mehlman was asked how the GOP would react if the situation were reversed and the same national security controversy were unfolding in a Democratic White House, he insisted it was "unthinkable" to believe the GOP would behave the same way.

But the bottom line, among all the pro-Rove messaging, is that the White House is still laboring to extricate itself from a tough political dilemma. Mehlman was compelled yesterday to watch the video replay of a remark by press secretary Scott McClellan, who stated on Oct. 7, 2003, that he had talked with Rove and other administration aides and had concluded that "they were not involved. I have no doubt... . I like to check my information to make sure it's accurate."

Mehlman replied that McClellan, "an honest guy," was not available yesterday to defend himself, out of respect for the Fitzgerald probe. Mehlman said, "We should all take a breath and not rush to judgment."

When he was reminded, however, that the White House may have prejudged the probe at the outset by declaring Rove innocent, he replied: "Investigations have different phases," and autumn 2003 was an "early phase... with less activity."

But will he, as party chairman, accept Fitzgerald's findings if Rove or other Bush aides are indicted or reprimanded? After all, Mehlman stated yesterday that he had "confidence" in Fitzgerald.

"I'm not going to speculate," Mehlman replied. "... It would be inappropriate for me as Republican chairman to say what legal strategy people may take in the future."

Translation: The Rove message machine may just be warming up.


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