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

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Many ways to parse Rove story

Eric Black
Star Tribune
Published July 31, 2005

It began with 16 words that the White House now says should not have been in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.

Six months later, an opinion piece written by a former diplomat named Joseph Wilson roiled the White House by challenging those 16 words, thereby challenging a basis on which Bush had taken the nation to war in Iraq.

Leaks from high administration officials to journalists followed as the White House sought to undermine Wilson's critique.

Five days after the op-ed, columnist Robert Novak published a piece mentioning that two unnamed administration officials had told him that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative.

Turns out that Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, was one of Novak's sources.

Turns out that Wilson's wife was a covert CIA operative who worked on weapons of mass destruction.

The CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the disclosure of Plame's identity was a crime. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed as a special prosecutor to find the leakers and answer that question.

Now, more than two years later, the investigation has become a high-stakes Washington drama, focusing mostly on the question of whether Rove should be prosecuted or fired.

In today's media hothouse, when a story becomes the story, it metastasizes into many competing narratives, making it difficult to know what the story is essentially about. Here are five versions:

It's about the war

The recent media focus on who leaked what to whom when has obscured an important part of the why. Why was Rove, as the Los Angeles Times has reported, "intensely focused" on knocking down Wilson's op-ed?

The op-ed appeared at an awkward moment of transition in the national mood toward the Iraq war. Three months after U.S. troops had occupied Baghdad, the expected stockpiles of illegal Iraqi weapons were not turning up. Questions were percolating about how pre-war intelligence could have been wrong.

Wilson said in his op-ed that the CIA had sent him to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraq might be seeking uranium there for nuclear weapons, and that he found the allegations to be far-fetched. He said he was surprised to hear Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union message, base part of his case for war on reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Africa.

Wilson concluded that the administration had ignored evidence that did not support the case for war.

The White House soon acknowledged that the 16 words about Iraq seeking uranium in Niger should not have been in the speech, although some maintain that the sentence was accurate. U.S. arms inspectors have concluded that Iraq had no active nuclear weapons program in the period before the war.

A Bush-appointed panel concluded in March of this year that U.S. intelligence had been "dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

But the White House has never agreed with those accusing it of deliberately twisting the intelligence to justify the war.

It's about the law

Once a special prosecutor gets appointed and a grand jury is empaneled, the stakes increase.

Most commentary about the question of who might be indicted and for what has focused on Rove, vice presidential aide Lewis Libby (who has also been identified as discussing Plame's CIA work with a journalist), and the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. That 1982 law makes it a crime to reveal the identity of covert agents but sets a high bar, requiring that the disclosure be made "knowingly" and "intentionally."

Rove's defenders assert that he did not know Plame was a covert agent. And, because Plame may not have done overseas undercover work for several years, some doubt whether she qualifies under the law.

News stories (mostly based on leaks from unnamed sources who say Fitzgerald does not want them talking about the case) say the grand jury is very interested in a State Department memo given to former Secretary of State Colin Powell soon after Wilson's op-ed was published. It mentioned Plame's CIA work and included a notation that this was secret information. No published reports have reported any evidence that Rove saw the memo.

Other federal laws with lower standards make it a crime to divulge government secrets.

Recent speculation in national newspapers suggests Fitzgerald may be exploring perjury or obstruction of justice charges based on contradictions between the accounts of some of the witnesses.

Rove has been interviewed three times by investigators and testified twice to the grand jury. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, says his client is not a target of the investigation.

It's about credibility

Three times, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan flatly rejected any suggestion that Rove was involved in the Plame leak. He said he had been told that directly by Rove. On one occasion, he said any such implication was "a ridiculous suggestion."

Now that Luskin has confirmed Rove's involvement, McClellan won't revisit his earlier statements, saying it would be inappropriate to talk about an ongoing criminal probe.

The portion of Americans who now view Bush as "trustworthy" has dropped to 49 percent, after being above 60 percent throughout his first term, according to the Pew Center for the People and Press. Pew's pollsters found that those who believe Rove committed a serious offense were most likely to find Bush untrustworthy.

Bush's statements about what he would do to the leakers has been scrutinized to see whether he is changing the standard to avoid having to fire Rove, the architect of all of his electoral victories.

On Sept. 30, 2003, Bush said he would "take appropriate action" if anyone in his administration leaked classified information. On June 10, 2004, Bush answered "yes" to the question "do you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found to have" leaked Plame's identity.

On July 18, after Rove's role in the matter was public, Bush said, "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

It's about journalism

Judith Miller of the New York Times, who did not write about Plame, is in jail for refusing to testify about her conversations with unnamed officials on the matter. Unless she agrees to testify, she will presumably remain behind bars until the grand jury adjourns, possibly in October.

Matt Cooper of Time magazine avoided jail at the last minute when Rove granted him a personal exemption to talk about their Wilson-Plame conversation.

Novak has generally stopped answering questions about his role in the case, but he has not faced contempt charges, leading most observers to assume that he cooperated with the prosecutor and the grand jury. Rove was one of the sources for Novak's original Plame column, but the identity of his other source is not publicly known.

Miller's plight has led Congress to consider a federal shield law that would protect reporters who refuse to reveal sources in federal cases, unless the case involved national security.

It's about politics

Well, sure.

The Rove case fits nicely into the broader Democratic effort to portray Republicans as arrogant, vindictive and dangerously unmoored from facts or truth. According to this line of attack, Wilson spoke the truth about Niger and manipulation of pre-war intelligence, so the White House had to punish him, even if in so doing they outed a covert CIA operative.

Republicans say the Democrats are engaged in a partisan smear of Rove who, as Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman said, was only "discouraging a reporter from writing a false story." It fits the overall Republican argument that Democrats, lacking positive proposals of their own, are determined to block everything Bush proposes, in part by tactics of distraction. In the Plame matter, the president launched an investigation and promised to fire anyone in his administration who committed a crime. But the GOP contends that Democrats have rushed to judgment in demanding that Rove be fired without waiting for the result of the investigation.