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

Friday, December 16, 2005

NATIONAL JOURNAL: Why Novak Called Rove (12/16/05)

By Murray Waas, special to National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

On July 9, 2003, senior presidential adviser Karl Rove was well prepared as he returned a telephone call from columnist Robert Novak. On his desk were talking points and other briefing materials that then-White House Political Director Matt Schlapp and other staffers had compiled for Rove in anticipation of the conversation.

For a White House that took great pride in its disciplined approach to managing the flow of information to the public, such thorough staff preparation -- even for a single conversation with a newspaper columnist -- was not out of the ordinary, former and current administration officials said in interviews.

But despite the meticulous preparation for what should have been a routine phone call, something went awry. As a result of what both Rove and Novak have insisted were only brief comments at the very end of the conversation, Novak wrote a column disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA officer; a special prosecutor was named to investigate the leak; a New York Times reporter was jailed for 85 days; and the then-chief of staff to Vice President Cheney was indicted on criminal charges for concealing his own role in the leak. Rove himself anxiously awaits word on whether he will also be charged by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Ironically, the materials prepared for Rove in advance of the conversation had nothing to do with Valerie Plame, the CIA officer whom Novak would identify -- using Rove as one of his sources -- as an "agency operative" in a July 14, 2003, column.

Instead, the voluminous material on Rove's desk -- including talking points, related briefing materials, and information culled from confidential government personnel files -- involved a different woman: Frances Fragos Townsend, a former senior attorney in the Clinton administration's Justice Department whom President Bush had recently named to be his deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism.

Bush had personally assigned Rove to help counter what the president believed to be a "rearguard" effort within his own administration, by persons unknown, to discredit Townsend and derail her appointment, according to White House documents and accounts given by former and current officials.

Just before his July 9 conversation with Rove, Novak had been relentlessly calling around the White House asking questions about Townsend. Adam Levine, then an assistant White House press secretary and a Rove protege, told Rove that Novak had called, and that Novak was upset that Rove had not called him back. Levine would say later that he was uncertain whether Novak had stated the purpose of the call.

On July 8, Rove's secretary wrote Townsend's name on a telephone message slip, indicating that Townsend was the subject of Novak's inquiry. It was then that Rove instructed his staff to prepare briefing materials for him to have on hand to answer Novak's questions on Townsend.

When he finally got on the phone with Novak, Rove -- consulting the talking points and briefing materials spread across his desk -- argued the case that Townsend was qualified to be a deputy national security adviser, according to an account that Rove gave to another senior administration official at the time, as well as Rove's later account to federal investigators. If, in fact, Rove stuck to the information in the talking-points memo, he would have told Novak that President Bush, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and then-CIA Director George Tenet all had full confidence in Townsend.

Some of the conversation was on background, meaning that Novak could quote Rove as a "senior administration official," while other things were off-the-record and could not be written at all.

Although it is unclear whether Rove was the "official" referred to, Novak would write in his column: "Townsend did not return my telephone calls. The White House official representing her said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice obtained endorsements of her by [then-Attorney General John] Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and CIA Director George Tenet."

According to the accounts of their conversations that Rove and Novak gave to federal investigators, the subject of Valerie Plame came up only after they had finished talking about Townsend.

Three days earlier, on July 6, Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had published an op-ed piece in The New York Times and had appeared on NBC's Meet the Press alleging that the Bush administration had "twisted" intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Iraq.

In 2002, the CIA had sent Wilson to Africa to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein's regime was attempting to buy uranium from the government of Niger to build an atomic weapon. Wilson reported back that the allegations were most likely unfounded. Still, the Niger-Iraq allegation found its way into Bush's State of the Union speech in January 2003.

Both Novak and Rove have told federal prosecutors that it was Novak who raised Plame's name, with the columnist saying he had heard that "Wilson's wife" had worked for the CIA and had been responsible for having her husband sent on the Niger mission.

"I heard that too," Rove responded, according to published accounts of what Rove told federal investigators of the conversations. Novak's version of what was said has been slightly different. He reportedly has told investigators that Rove's response was something to the effect of, "Oh, you know about it."

Novak indicated to Rove that he was still going to write a column that would be critical of Townsend. But according to an account that Novak later provided of his conversation with Rove, he also signaled to Rove that Wilson and Plame would be the subject of one of his columns. "I think that you are going to be unhappy with something that I write," he said to Rove, "and I think you are very much going to like something that I am about to write."

On July 10, Novak's column appeared in newspapers across the country, with a headline suggested by Novak's syndicate: "Bush Sets Himself Up for Another Embarrassment."

The column referred to Townsend as another potential "enemy within." Novak opined that Townsend would likely prove disloyal to Bush, because she had been "an intimate adviser of Janet Reno as the Clinton administration's attorney general," and he pointedly noted that earlier in her career, "Townsend's boss and patron ... was [then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York] Jo Ann Harris, whose orientation was liberal Democratic."

Four days later, on July 14, Novak wrote his now-famous column on Plame, in which he outed her as an "agency operative." Although the column was little noticed at the time, it would eventually unleash a firestorm in Washington and lead to the appointment of Fitzgerald; the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller until she agreed to testify before the grand jury; and the grand jury indictment of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby and his resignation as Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Double-Edged Sword
The previously undisclosed information in the Townsend affair -- which involved efforts by various senior officials in the Bush administration to discredit Townsend and undermine her appointment as the president's deputy national security adviser -- is important for at least two reasons.

First, this account -- reconstructed through interviews with current and former administration officials, attorneys involved in the CIA leak case, and a review of confidential White House records -- serves as a window into the bitter conflicts over foreign policy fought at the highest levels of the administration.

The senior staff in the Office of the Vice President adamantly opposed Townsend's appointment. The staff included two of Cheney's closest aides: Libby, then the chief of staff and national security adviser to the vice president; and David Addington, who at the time was Cheney's counsel but who has since succeeded Libby as chief of staff.

Among other things, Libby and Addington believed that Townsend would bring a more traditional approach to combating terrorism, and feared she would not sign on to, indeed might even oppose, the OVP's policy of advocating the use of aggressive and controversial tools against terror suspects. One of those techniques is known as "extraordinary rendition," in which terror suspects are taken to foreign countries, where they can be interrogated without the same legal and human-rights protections afforded to those in U.S. custody, including the protection from torture.

Libby's opposition to Townsend was so intense that he asked at least two other people in the White House to obtain her personnel records. These records showed that she had been turned down for two lesser positions in the Bush administration because of her political leanings, according to accounts provided by current and former administration officials. Libby also spoke about leaking the material to journalists or key staffers or members on Capitol Hill, to possibly undercut Townsend, according to the same accounts.

Second, the new information on Townsend sheds light on why the first federal grand jury in the CIA leak case ended its two-year term this fall without bringing any criminal charges against Rove. On the very last day of its term, October 28, the grand jury indicted Libby on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice for allegedly concealing his own role in the Plame leak.

The papers on Frances Townsend that Rove had on his desk on July 9 appear to have corroborated Rove's and Novak's accounts to prosecutors that the principal focus of their conversation was Townsend's appointment. But on the issue of Valerie Plame, prosecutors have been unable to determine whether in fact Novak was the one who first broached the subject, and whether Rove simply confirmed something that Novak already knew. Sources close to the investigation say this uncertainty is one of the foremost reasons Fitzgerald has not decided yet whether to bring criminal charges against Rove.

At the same time, the Townsend information could prove to be a double-edged sword for Rove. According to sources close to the investigation, prosecutors looking at Rove's actions are weighing the exonerating information regarding the July 9 Rove-Novak conversation against the more incriminating conversation about Plame that Rove had on July 11, 2003, with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.

Cooper has told the grand jury that Rove was the first person to tell him of Plame's CIA employment. Unlike Novak, Cooper has testified that Rove did not represent the information on Plame as simply hearsay or rumor.

Fitzgerald is said to be continuing his investigation into whether Rove made false statements, committed perjury, and obstructed justice. The investigation is focused on Rove's apparent failure to disclose his conversation with Cooper in his first interview with the FBI in October 2003 or in his first appearance before the grand jury in February 2004. In October 2004, Rove revised his testimony in a second appearance before the grand jury, saying he had indeed talked to Cooper and that he had not disclosed the talk earlier because of a faulty memory.

Dan Richman, a professor of law at Fordham University and a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, says that even if some evidence appears to exonerate Rove, if there's evidence that Rove withheld information from the authorities about Cooper, Rove's reticence "might even be construed as an attempt to deflect attention from the Cooper call, [and this] could raise troubling questions for Fitzgerald and could come back to haunt Rove."

In recent weeks, Fitzgerald has intensified his investigation, obtaining permission from a federal court to present new information on Rove and other Bush administration officials to a second grand jury. The prosecutor has also questioned additional witnesses, and summoned some to testify. On December 7, Fitzgerald, accompanied by two deputies and the lead FBI agent on the case, presented evidence for three hours to the second grand jury.

Inside The OVP
The virtually simultaneous White House insider campaigns to leak information on Townsend and Plame, as well as the contradictory efforts by various Bush administration officials to discredit or defend Townsend, reflect the ideological fault lines that have split officials into competing factions at the highest levels of the administration.

These internal conflicts -- which existed from the earliest days of the Bush presidency -- intensified in the emotionally charged days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, numerous current and former administration officials said in interviews.

Although White House officials were never able to determine who leaked information to Novak about Townsend, senior aides to Cheney, foremost among them Libby and Addington, privately opposed her appointment.

In conversations with others in the White House, Libby and Addington expressed concerns that had less to do with Townsend's political associations than with the fact that they believed that she favored a more "law enforcement" approach to fighting terrorism, including opposition to rendition, according to an official who spoke to both men at the time.

Libby, Addington, and others also had concerns that as a Justice Department official, she had been too slow in invoking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the mechanism by which the government seeks court approval for wiretaps and other electronic surveillance of potential terrorists and spies. Townsend, who declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, has said that in refusing the FISA requests, she was only following the law; that she did not want to jeopardize potential prosecutions by allowing wiretaps that would later be thrown out in court; and that the rules for such electronic surveillance were much stricter before September 11.

When Townsend's appointment was first being considered, Libby specifically sought from at least two other people at the White House confidential government personnel records indicating that Townsend had been turned down earlier for at least two senior administration positions because of her political background, according to accounts provided by two senior government officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

In one of the instances, Libby inquired about obtaining confidential personnel information from the White House Presidential Personnel Office, which screens high-level political appointees, and from a federal agency where Townsend had previously been denied a job, according to the account of one of the officials knowledgeable about the request.

Libby's tactics against Townsend appear to have paralleled those he took around the same period of time in attempting to blunt Wilson's criticism of the administration's use of prewar intelligence.

According to the grand jury indictment of Libby, he sought information from State Department and CIA officials on Plame's CIA employment. Libby also wanted to learn whether Plame had played a role in her husband's selection for the Niger mission. The indictment alleged that Libby had asked Addington, "in sum and substance, what paperwork there would be at the CIA if an employee's spouse undertook an overseas trip." The court papers do not say what action, if any, Addington may have taken in response to Libby's request.

A spokesman for the Office of the Vice President said that officials could not comment for this story, because of the ongoing federal grand jury investigation.

In his separate effort to block Townsend, Libby also spoke to others in the White House about possibly leaking information to someone in the media or providing it to staffers on Capitol Hill to create outside pressure on the president not to make the appointment, according to the accounts given by two senior White House officials.

Libby gave key Republican House and Senate members at least some of the material, which served as a basis for a memo by congressional staffers that was circulated widely on Capitol Hill criticizing the potential Townsend appointment, according to the White House officials' accounts.

And Libby suggested both inside and outside the White House that Townsend was being considered as a national security adviser to the president because her husband had been a classmate of George W. Bush's at Andover and Yale.

(Other administration officials insist that Bush and John Townsend knew each other only in passing at Andover and Yale, and privately scoff at Libby's notion that their early acquaintance would play a major role in the president's selection of Frances Townsend as his adviser.)

Libby pointedly said that the Bush-Townsend connection was the reason that the ordinary vetting procedures had been set aside to allow for Townsend's appointment, according to the accounts provided by the two senior officials.

In at least one instance, according to documents and sources, Townsend had in fact been considered for a senior position at the Homeland Security Department, but the job offer was pulled back because of opposition by the White House Office of Political Affairs and the Presidential Personnel Office. After the turndown, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge expressed disappointment that he was unable to hire Townsend, two senior government officials said.

One senior government official familiar with the screening operation said it was a high priority to "push back on political appointees" regarding issues of loyalty to the president, and that party affiliation was central to many decisions, as it had been in the White House under previous presidents.

But the intense interest in Townsend's personnel records on the part of the vice president's office raised eyebrows among other senior White House staffers, especially after Novak wrote in his July 10 column on Townsend that "careful political screening by the Bush operation for routine appointments seems to have broken down in filling highly sensitive terrorism posts."

Ironically, Rove, who was tasked by the president to defend Townsend, had largely devised the system of screening political appointees. A senior administration official asserted in an interview that once Bush made the decision to back the Townsend nomination, Rove would have put aside whatever personal feelings he had and would have done everything possible to implement Bush's decision.

"His attitude would have been, 'This has been done. There was a presidential decision. Let's now put the best possible face on it,' " the official said of Rove.

One Shattered, One Thriving
That Rove and Libby and others on the vice president's staff would work at cross-purposes with one another was hardly a surprise to many senior West Wing staffers, even as they later considered the irony that during the very same telephone conversation in which Rove was doing damage control with Novak to blunt the effort to undercut Townsend, Rove appeared to be working in tandem with Libby when he spoke to Novak about Plame.

A former senior White House aide said in an interview that while Rove and Libby were often allies, they were two men with "different objectives" that were by their nature inherently in conflict. Rove, this person said, was Bush's "top political strategist," while Libby's primary role was that of "defender-in-chief for the vice president." That, of course, led to inevitable conflict between Libby and Rove.

Whatever conflict there was between the two men was submerged as well as possible, in large part because of the president's personality and management style: "The president and [Chief of Staff] Andy [Card] have set the tone," said the former White House aide. "There is an expectation of comity. Everyone slaps each other's backs even if they don't like each other."

One official said that Rove and Libby, reflecting sometimes two distinct power centers in the White House, often viewed each other with mistrust and as a "necessary evil in the larger scheme of things," but they respected each other's abilities.

Libby, Addington, and Rove did not return phone calls for this article.

A spokesperson for President Bush, Dana Perino, said in response to a query for this article, "Fran Townsend is doing a fantastic job for the president. She is not only his homeland-security adviser, but also his counterterrorism adviser. She has earned the trust of both the president and her colleagues in the White House."

As for concerns regarding Townsend's past positions in the Clinton administration, Perino added that Townsend's "background as a law enforcement official, in addition to her experience at the Justice Department and Coast Guard, make her uniquely qualified to serve in this important role in the White House."

Lee Ann McBride, a press secretary to Vice President Cheney, said she could not answer any questions as to whether Libby, Addington, or others in the OVP had ever had reservations about Townsend's appointment, because the White House has a firm policy of never commenting on anything regarding its "internal deliberations." McBride said that "the vice president's office works very closely with Fran Townsend and the Homeland Security Council. She continues to do a remarkable job on the issues that are so crucial to the safety and security of all Americans."

In the meantime, while Libby awaits trial, Rove anxiously awaits a final decision as to whether Fitzgerald will bring charges against him.

As for Plame, she retired from the CIA on December 9, her career having been shattered by the disclosure that she worked undercover. She is considering filing a civil suit against those who exposed her identity, although she has delayed a final decision.

In sharp contrast, Townsend's career is thriving. Her portfolio has been expanded to include homeland-security issues. And Bush also considered her for secretary of Homeland Security, but pulled back, in part because of her hard-line positions on the treatment of terror suspects, which could have drawn opposition to her nomination. Ironically, her views on the treatment of suspected terrorists are similar to those of Cheney.

An August 27, 2005, profile of Townsend in The Washington Post illustrated the high esteem in which she is held inside the White House. "Just a little over two years ago, she had never met Bush and was viewed with suspicion by the inner circle of a tribalistic White House that does not easily accept outsiders," The Post wrote. "But the hard-charging Townsend has parlayed a succession of powerful patrons into one of the government's most important jobs.... Townsend has impressed Bush with a tough efficiency and a bit of a swagger that resembles his own. Her influence has grown to the point that Cabinet secretaries and agency directors who do not normally return media calls about White House staff members rush to phone with lavish praise for a profile." Among those who made admiring comments were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

That was no accident. The same disciplined White House media operation that had worked so hard to blunt criticism by Wilson and prepared briefing materials to defend Townsend was once again in high gear.

In anticipation of the Post profile, aides prepared talking points on Townsend for White House staffers who might be called by reporters. One person familiar with the materials called them "prepackaged virtual scripts" to read from if contacted.


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