Plame, By Any Other Name

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 11, 2005; 1:21 PM

There is no longer any question that top presidential adviser Karl Rove is a key player in the Valerie Plame case.

In fact, what Rove told Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about Plame is apparently one of the last things special prosecutor Patrick J.Fitzgerald is trying to determine before he wraps up his investigation into whether Plame was illegally outed as a CIA agent.

Newsweek yesterday described e-mails from Cooper relating his July 2003 interview with Rove. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, told The Washington Post yesterday that his client spoke to Cooper, but did not identify Plame by name. Luskin also said Fitzgerald has told him that Rove is not a target of the probe.

But let's look at what we can conclude from all this:

The latest news reports indicate that Rove is the source who Cooper was trying to protect until last week -- and that Rove tipped Cooper about Plame three days before Robert Novak published his now-famous column exposing Plame's identity.

Fitzgerald has asserted in his court filings that testimony from Cooper and now-jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller is all he needs to wrap up his investigation into whether a crime was committed. So what Rove said about Plame would therefore appear to be either one of two things -- or the only thing -- that Fitzgerald is still trying to nail down.

Rove and his lawyer's denials that he was involved in telling reporters about Plame now appear to be at best based on Clintonian hairsplitting about whether he literally used her name and identified her as covert or he simply described her as the CIA-employed wife of Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, the administration critic that White House was eager to discredit at the time.

President Bush and press secretary Scott McClellan's denials that Rove was involved in the Plame matter now appear to be at best based on the position that their responses to broad questions about Rove and Plame were met with narrowly constructed responses specifically about whether Rove leaked "classified information." Or is it possible Rove lied to them?

And McClellan's frequent implication that, if Rove talked to reporters about Plame it was only after Novak's column had already come out, now appears suspect.

If Karl Rove, Bush's top political strategist, longtime friend and deputy chief of staff is actually indicted by Fitzgerald -- which now appears to be a possibility -- it would be an enormous blow to Bush's second term. Until Fitzgerald wraps up his highly secretive investigation, however, that's all just speculation.

So let's ask ourselves some more practical questions instead:

Does Rove's current position pass the smell test?

Taking into account Bush's previous statements about leaks, does this mean he now has no choice but to fire Rove?

Did Rove keep all this from Bush?

Or did Bush know, but chose to keep silent and do nothing?

For some quick background, here is what Rove has said directly about Plame:

As ABC News's The Note reported on Sept. 29, 2003, ABC News producer Andrea Owen and a cameraman approached Rove that morning as he walked toward his car.

Owen: "Did you have any knowledge or did you leak the name of the CIA agent to the press?"

Rove: "No."

At which point, Rove shut his car door.

Then on August 31, 2004, Rove spoke to CNN's John King .

King: "Did someone in the White House leak the name of the CIA operative? What is your assessment of the status of the investigation, and can you tell us that you had nothing to do with. . . .

Rove: "Well, I'll repeat what I said to ABC News when this whole thing broke some number of months ago. I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name."

Here is McClellan in a Sept. 16, 2003 briefing :

"Q Now, this is apparently a federal offense, to burn the cover a CIA operative. . . . Did Karl Rove do it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I said, it's totally ridiculous."

On Sept. 30, 2003 , Bush himself was asked if Rove had a role in the CIA leak.

"Listen, I know of nobody -- I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information," he said. "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing."

And here is McClellan in an Oct. 7, 2003 briefing: "If someone in this administration leaked classified information, they will no longer be a part of this administration, because that's not the way this White House operates, that's not the way this President expects people in his administration to conduct their business. . . .

"If someone sought to punish someone for speaking out against the administration, that is wrong, and we would not condone that activity. No one in this White House would condone that activity. . . .

"It's absurd to suggest that the White House would be engaged in that kind of activity. That is not the way this White House operates."

This Just In

On MSNBC, Bob Kur reported out of this morning's off-camera gaggle with McClellan: "Well, they're being pummeled with questions here this morning. Very interesting turn of events. The White House spokesman just a few minutes ago was asked about the latest developments about Karl Rove and he says he can't comment because it's an ongoing criminal investigation -- and yet reporters went after him with questions saying that during this ongoing investigation at earlier stages, he was willing to stand at the podium and say flat out that Karl Rove was not involved in the leak of the C.I.A. operative's identity.

"Well, so those are some tough questions to be answered here at the White House today."

The News

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "It was 11:07 on a Friday morning, July 11, 2003, and Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper was tapping out an e-mail to his bureau chief, Michael Duffy. 'Subject: Rove/P&C,' (for personal and confidential), Cooper began. 'Spoke to Rove on double super secret background for about two mins before he went on vacation. . . . ' Cooper proceeded to spell out some guidance on a story that was beginning to roil Washington. He finished, 'please don't source this to rove or even WH [White House]' and suggested another reporter check with the CIA."

The White House, back in July 2003, was eager to discredit Wilson, who was publicly asserting that he had found no evidence Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger and had made that clear to administration officials before Bush included the charge in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Isikoff writes: "In a brief conversation with Rove, Cooper asked what to make of the flap over Wilson's criticisms. . . . Cooper wrote that Rove offered him a 'big warning' not to 'get too far out on Wilson.' Rove told Cooper that Wilson's trip had not been authorized by 'DCIA' -- CIA Director George Tenet -- or Vice President Dick Cheney. Rather, 'it was, KR said, wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized the trip.' "

Isikoff was on MSNBC this morning and said: "Karl Rove has never before acknowledged that he had spoken to Matthew Cooper or anybody else about the Wilson matter prior to the Novak column. The White House initially dismissed claims that Karl Rove was involved, in any way involved, in the outing of Valerie Plame as totally ridiculous and even as recently as last week, Karl Rove's lawyer was saying that it was -- that Rove was never a confidential source for any reporter on this matter. The e-mail conclusively disproves those statements."

Joe Hagan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "After a week of seemingly contradictory reports, one fact appears to have solidified: Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and architect of President Bush's election victories, was a key confidential source used by Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper in his July 2003 article about a Central Intelligence Agency operative. . . .

"The unmasking of Mr. Rove marks an important milestone in the case. On the one hand, the details of Mr. Rove's discussion with Mr. Cooper -- especially if he didn't name Ms. Plame -- may exculpate him of the intentional, illegal disclosure of the identity of a covert CIA operative. Much will depend on whether Mr. Rove truthfully described any conversations in testimony before the grand jury. If he did, that would clear him of even a perjury charge and any criminal liability.

"That said, the disclosure that Mr. Bush's top political strategist discussed the CIA employment of Mr. Wilson's wife amounts to a political embarrassment for Mr. Rove and the White House. A presidential spokesman had previously given what appeared to be an unequivocal public assurance that Mr. Rove hadn't been involved in the disclosure of Ms. Plame as a CIA operative. Discovery that earlier denials may have been carefully parsed would represent another blow to the administration's credibility, compounding damage from the underlying issue that initially brought Mr. Wilson into the spotlight."

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove spoke with at least one reporter about Valerie Plame's role at the CIA before she was identified as a covert agent in a newspaper column two years ago, but Rove's lawyer said yesterday that his client did not identify her by name. . . .

"Rove's conversation with Cooper could be significant because it indicates a White House official was discussing Plame prior to her being publicly named and could lead to evidence of how Novak learned her name.

"While the information is revelatory, it is still unknown whether Rove is a focus of the investigation. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said that Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has told him that Rove is not a target of the probe. Luskin said yesterday that Rove did not know Plame's name and was not actively trying to push the information into the public realm."

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: " 'A fair reading of the e-mail as well as the context in which the conversation took place makes it clear that the information conveyed was not part of an organized effort to disclose Plame's identity,' Mr. Luskin said."

Over at Time, where they certainly know what's going on, Bill Saporito simply writes: "And who was Cooper's source? A number of news organizations named Karl Rove, President Bush's senior political adviser. Time's editors have decided not to reveal the source at this time."


ABC's Good Morning America show today reported that "Presidential adviser Karl Rove may be in hot water with his boss now that his lawyer admitted he gave sensitive info to a reporter -- a leak that's at the center of a federal investigation. Here's ABC's Jessica Yellin."

Yellin: "He is one of the president's most trusted advisors, credited as the architect of the Bush campaign but now Newsweek magazine is reporting that Karl Rove is also one of the people who leaked secret information about a covert C.I.A. Agent to the media.. . . .

"Since the beginning of the investigation, President Bush has taken the position he does not tolerate leaks. . . .

"Legal experts say based on these e-mails Rove did not break the law, he did not name the woman or reveal that she was an undercover agent. But Rove must still answer to the president. The White House has maintained that anyone who leaked the identity of a C.I.A. Operative is not welcomed in the administration."

CNN, which happens to be owned by the same people who own Time magazine, is being oddly silent on the Rove issue this morning.

And on Fox News, they're not taking it too seriously.

On Fox News's Fox and Friends this morning, Kelly Wright reported: "Amid the difficult task of choosing a candidate for the Supreme Court and waging the war on terror, the White House is also dealing with a report about top White House adviser Karl Rove."

But, he concluded: "Bottom line here, guys, when you read between the lines, Karl Rove never mentioned anyone's name. "

Steve Doocy had a follow-up question: "Kelly, did I hear you right? Matthew Cooper wrote that the information that he had received was on double supersecret background ?

Wright: "That's right. According to this report that we're getting. . . .

Doocy: "Well, it must not be too double supersecret because we know about it now!"

Hairsplitting . . . From Cooper?

Adam Liptak in the Times attempts to reconstruct the events of Wednesday morning, when Cooper announced: "A short time ago, in somewhat dramatic fashion, I received an express personal release from my source."

Sounds like a phone call directly from his source, doesn't it?

But Liptak writes: "Mr. Cooper, it turns out, never spoke to his confidential source that day, said Robert D. Luskin, a lawyer for the source, who is now known to be Karl Rove, the senior White House political adviser.

"The development was actually the product of a frenzied series of phone calls initiated that morning by a lawyer for Mr. Cooper and involving Mr. Luskin and the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald. . . .

"Mr. Cooper and his personal lawyer, Richard A. Sauber, declined to comment on the negotiations, but Mr. Sauber said that Mr. Cooper had used the word 'personal' to mean specific."

But what Cooper said he got -- and what Miller says she hasn't gotten from her source -- is an explicit assurance that he was no longer bound by his confidentiality pledge. And Liptak writes: "Mr. Luskin said he had only reaffirmed the blanket waiver, in response to a request from Mr. Fitzgerald."

Liptak, by the way, also raises the question of whether Cooper got an explicit assurance before he testified in August about his conversations with I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Previous Statements

Blogger Billmon has put together an excellent collection of previous White House statements vouching for Rove, so I don't have to.

Questions for the Media

Here are some questions for my fellow journalists:

For those covering the latest developments: How does it matter whether Rove literally used Plame's name or not?

Why, as the Think Progress blog has been asking, did no one in the White House press corps ask McClellan even one question about Rove's involvement last week as the story was starting to unfold?

Has Karl Rove routinely hidden behind confidentiality to spread damaging information about the White House's enemies?

Should there maybe be a new category of "I'll-go-to-jail-for-you" on background reserved exclusively for whistle-blowers?

Will any of you ever grant Karl Rove confidentiality again?

The Wild, Wild Web

The left side of the Web is in a state of near ecstasy. And the right side is enraged -- primarily by the left side's ecstasy and the media's presumed feeding frenzy.

On the left:

The Nation's David Corn writes: "There now is clear-cut evidence that Rove was involved in -- if not the chief architect of -- the actions that led to the outing of Plame/Wilson. If he's not in severe legal trouble, he ought to be in political peril. . . .

"[T]his is proof that the Bush White House was using any information it could gather on Joseph Wilson -- even classified information related to national security -- to pursue a vendetta against Wilson, a White House critic. Even if it turns out Rove did not break the law regarding the naming of intelligence officials, this new disclosure could prove Rove guilty of leaking a national security secret to a reporter for political ends. What would George W. Bush do about that?"

Here's Tim Grieve on Salon.com: "It's plainly no defense to the crime of leaking the identity of a CIA agent to say that you didn't actually use her name: Federal law prohibits the intentional disclosure of 'any information identifying' a covert agent."

On Huffingtonpost.com, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) writes: "Remember during the 2000 Presidential campaign when the Republican mantra was that President Bush was going to 'restore honesty and dignity to the White House?' How's that going?"

On the right:

Blogger Tom Maguire writes: "This Newsweek revelation may create some political heat for Karl, but it is far from clear that, if these notes accurately describe the conversation, Karl Rove had the intent and knowledge that are also elements of a crime under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act."

A post on the Powerline blog suggests: "The media feeding frenzy will, indeed, be massive. But absent a serious claim of a statutory violation or perjury, it's questionable whether anyone apart from liberal bloggers and other pre-existing Bush haters will partake in the media's dog food. This isn't a top presidential aide accepting an expensive gift, or engaging in lewd sexual conduct. It's a top aide providing truthful information to journalists in response to lies told to embarrass the administration and our government."

Blogger Hugh Hewitt says its all particularly unseemly in the wake of the London transit bombings. "[T]he president values and trusts Rove, and the assault on Rove has nothing to do with outrage over injury to the national security and everything to do with bleeding Bush. The idea that the forces that defended Clinton's bald lies under oath are now 'outraged' over spun-up pretend perjury charges would be wildly amusing but for the fact that the tragic losses of the past few days have not interrupted the vendettaists for even a decent interval."

Rove Speaks

Rove was in Nebraska on Friday, talking about . . . Social Security.

In town primarily for a fundraiser, Rove also stopped by the offices of Ameritrade.

Nate Jenkins writes in the Lincoln Journal Star: "Rove spoke for about 15 minutes at the online brokerage firm, answered a few written questions from employees, and then left without taking questions from reporters. He stuck solely to the Social Security message, not mentioning the bombings that left at least 50 dead in London. Nor did he address the pending investigation into whether Bush administration officials in 2003 illegally leaked the name of a CIA agent to reporters after the agent's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly criticized the Bush administration's arguments for going to war in Iraq. . . .

"The event Friday was closed to the public, and Rove's message was delivered to a company that Ameritrade Chief Operating Officer J. Peter Ricketts said would not directly benefit from partially privatizing Social Security but that he said could 'in the grand scheme of things.' "

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