Battered by sagging poll numbers, new doubts in the aftermath of the London bombings about the effectiveness of its war on terrorism, and no letup in the bad news out of Iraq, the White House has found itself this week embroiled in yet another controversy, one that threatens the credibility, if not the tenure, of the man widely known as President George W. Bush’s "brain."
Thanks to the disclosure of e-mail messages from a Time magazine reporter to his editor, it is now known that, contrary to categorical assurances by the White House two years ago, Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, leaked the identity of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, the subject of a criminal investigation by a federal grand jury.
At the time, Bush himself had assured reporters that he would fire anyone in his administration found to be responsible for the "outing" of Valerie Plame, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a retired diplomat who had published an article in the New York Times debunking Bush’s assertions in the run-up to the Iraq war that Baghdad had tried to buy uranium yellowcake from Niger, presumably as part of a nuclear weapons program.
But now, with Rove "outed" as one of the sources of the leak, the White House is refusing to comment about the implications, insisting, in contrast to its assurances about Rove’s innocence as recently as 14 months ago, that it would be wrong to say anything about the case while the grand jury investigation continues.
Bush himself stoically ignored questions about Rove’s fate that were shouted at him by reporters during a very brief photo-opportunity with a visiting foreign dignitary Tuesday. At the end of a cabinet meeting in which Rove was discreetly seated in a rear row Wednesday, he announced, "This is a serious investigation."
Top Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, are now trying to extract maximum political advantage, demanding that Rove step down for breaching national security and placing the lives of Plame, her associates, and their agents in jeopardy.
While Rove is considered most unlikely to leave, at least in the near term, the stakes are high. Rove, whom Bush has referred to as "the architect" of his electoral successes and, more affectionately, as "boy genius," is widely considered the president’s single most influential adviser, and not just on political matters.
Neoconservatives howled, for example, when Rove, who has guided Bush’s political career from its outset, reportedly told top cabinet officials in the fall of 2003 that there was to be "no war in 2004," in order to ensure the president’s reelection.
"[T]his president does not want to lose Karl Rove," David Gergen, a top political adviser to former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, told the Los Angeles Times. "Rove is his right arm."
The controversy began almost exactly two years ago almost three months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq when Wilson published a column in the New York Times July 6, 2003, recounting his 2002 trip to Niger as a CIA consultant precisely to investigate intelligence reports that Iraq had tried to buy a large quantity of yellowcake from the country.
After a week talking to sources in the country, Wilson, who had served a good part of his diplomatic career in Francophone Africa, including Niger, concluded that the reports were untrue and reported his conclusions back to the CIA and the State Department.
Despite his findings, the allegation that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," made its way into Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2003, less than two months before the invasion.
Noting the apparent anomaly, Wilson, who wrote that he was confident his findings had been communicated to the relevant policymakers, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, which, he was told, had expressed particular interest in the Niger reports, argued that, "If the information was ignored because it did not fit certain preconceptions about Iraq, then a legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses."
The article, which was published at the moment when it first became clear that U.S. forces in Iraq faced a serious and growing insurgency, received considerable attention, and, within days, the White House conceded that the inclusion in Bush’s speech of the uranium claim was a mistake.
On July 14, 2003, however, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak published a column in which he reported that Wilson had traveled to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, whom Novak not only identified by name, but also described as "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." He cited "two senior administration officials" as his sources.
Several other Washington reporters came forward shortly afterward saying that they, too, had been called by senior officials regarding Plame’s identity, apparently in an effort to discredit Wilson’s reporting by suggesting that nepotism played a role in his selection. None of the reporters, however, identified their sources by name.
Under a 1982 law, it is a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of U.S. citizens working undercover for the CIA. Democrats, the media, and indeed some intelligence veterans soon began clamoring for a criminal investigation of the leak, particularly amid evidence that the leak may have resulted in the agency’s closure of a major international counter-proliferation operation that been running for a number of years.
The Justice Department initiated an investigation and, under growing public pressure, reluctantly appointed a special counsel, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, to handle the case. Fitzgerald promptly impaneled a grand jury and began taking testimony from administration officials, including Rove. All grand jury proceedings are secret, and remarkably little has leaked out to date.
Reporters, many of whom initially resisted testifying on the grounds that conversations with sources were confidential, were also subpoenaed to testify by Fitzgerald, who has won a series of court decisions holding that reporters do not have an absolute right to withhold the identity of their sources when a crime has been committed. It was in that context that Time magazine turned over the records of conversations held between its reporter, Matthew Cooper, and White House officials, including Rove.
According to one e-mail message obtained last week by Newsweek, Cooper informed his editor that Rove had told him four days before the Novak column was published that Wilson’s wife whom he did not identify by name "apparently works" for the CIA and had a role in selecting him for the Niger mission.
Rove’s lawyer has since confirmed that such a conversation had taken place but insisted that his client had not done anything illegal, both because Rove did not provide Plame’s name, nor was he aware that she was a covert officer.
In addition, the attorney has also declared that Rove has specifically waived the confidentiality of his conversation with Cooper, thus permitting the Time correspondent, who had been prepared to go to jail rather than to disclose his source, to testify before the grand jury in the coming weeks.
While Rove’s waiver saved Cooper from going to jail, another reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, has been behind bars since last Wednesday for refusing to cooperate with Fitzgerald’s investigation.
While her decision has been hailed by many in the media as an act of integrity and courage, others have noted that, in the run-up to the Iraq, Miller, who is considered close to neoconservative hawks in and out of the administration, was the most consistent purveyor in the elite media of stories about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) based on the accounts of sources provided by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and the Pentagon.
Given her close association with the war hawks, her WMD expertise, and the fact that she never wrote about Wilson or his wife, some writers, notably William Jackson, Jr. of the trade publication, Editor & Publisher, have raised the question whether she may have been a source for, as well as a witness to, disclosure of Plame’s identity.
Another prominent neoconservative, Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, boasted two years ago that he was told by two "former government officials" of Plame’s identity before Novak published his column. May worked as a reporter for the Times for 10 years before becoming communications director for the Republican National Committee, a post where he knew Rove quite well.
(Inter Press Service)