A Sidestep and a Backtrack

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 18, 2005; 3:33 PM

Does President Bush still intend to fire anyone found to be involved in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative?

Simple question, really. After all, that's what he said on June 10, 2004 .

But now that Karl Rove, Bush's closest adviser, has been implicated in the leak, Bush's standard seems to have changed.

"If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration," Bush announced today.

That's not very specific. And it's also not a real big concession.

In fact, even as the case continues to consume Washington, and even as more and more details about White House involvement in the leak continue to emerge from all quarters, Bush today continued the White House's public stonewall.

Here's the transcript of Bush's brief joint appearance with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this morning.

The first question came from Terence Hunt of the Associated Press:

Hunt: "Mr. President, you said you don't want to talk about an ongoing investigation, so I'd like to ask you, regardless of whether a crime was committed, do you still intend to fire anyone found to be involved in the CIA leak case? And are you displeased that Karl Rove told a reporter that Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife worked for the Agency on WMD issues?"

Bush: "We have a serious ongoing investigation here. (Laughter.) And it's being played out in the press. And I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. And I will do so, as well. I don't know all the facts. I want to know all the facts. The best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who's spending time investigating it. I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know the facts, and if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

Karl Rove, Cover Boy

It's a big day for Rove, who appears on both the covers of Time and Newsweek .

Howard Fineman anchors a hefty Newsweek cover describing "The World According to Karl Rove," where "you take the offensive, and stay there. You create a narrative that glosses over complex, mitigating facts to divide the world into friends and enemies, light and darkness, good and bad, Bush versus Saddam. You are loyal to a fault to your friends, merciless to your enemies. You keep your candidate's public rhetoric sunny and uplifting, finding others to do the attacking. You study the details, and learn more about your foes than they know about themselves. You use the jujitsu of media flow to flip the energy of your enemies against them. The Boss never discusses political mechanics in public. But in fact everything is political --- and everyone is fair game."

As for the Plame case: "Rove's lawyer says that there has been no wrongdoing, and that the prosecutor has told him that Rove is not a 'target' of the probe. But this isn't just about the Facts, it's about what Rove's foes regard as a higher Truth: that he is a one-man epicenter of a narrative of Evil. The Manichaean politics that Rove had perfected over three decades now threaten to engulf him, or at least render him as something less than what he has been to Bush: the mastermind of Republican hegemony."

Fineman describes how former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV entered Rove's gun sights after publicly questioning one of President Bush's assertions about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the runup to war.

"[T]he line between national security and politics had long since been all but erased by the Bush administration," Fineman writes. And while some officials were willing to back off on that one assertion, "Cheney --- who tended never to give an inch on any topic --- held firm. And so, therefore, did Rove, who sometimes referred to the vice president as 'Leadership.' Rove took foreign-policy cues from the pro-war coterie that surrounded the vice president, and was personally and operationally close to Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby."

Nancy Gibbs writes in Time magazine's cover story that Rove's defenders have found themselves "artfully pivoting from saying he hadn't done anything to saying he hadn't done anything wrong, that Plame wasn't really a secret agent anyway, or if she was, Rove didn't know that, or if he did, he only brought her up because he was trying to keep reporters from writing a bad story based on Wilson's false charges, and besides, it was a reporter who blew Plame's cover to him in the first place and not the other way around."

And, she adds: "[E]ven if Rove skates past any legal trouble, that still leaves the question of means and ends."

Cooper Tells His Story

Matthew Cooper writes in Time about his experience before the grand jury. He adds a few details to our understanding of what transpired in his now-famous interview with Rove, including how it ended:

"I have a distinct memory of Rove ending the call by saying, 'I've already said too much.' This could have meant he was worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else. I don't know, but that sign-off has been in my memory for two years."

More significantly, Cooper offers us the first look inside Fitzgerald's grand jury room.

"Did Fitzgerald's questions give me a sense of where the investigation is heading? Perhaps. He asked me several different ways if Rove indicated how he had heard that Plame worked at the CIA. (He did not, I told the grand jury.) Maybe Fitzgerald is interested in whether Rove knew her CIA ties through a person or through a document. . . .

"A surprising line of questioning had to do with, of all things, welfare reform. The prosecutor asked if I had ever called Mr. Rove about the topic of welfare reform. Just the day before my grand jury testimony Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, had told journalists that when I telephoned Rove that July, it was about welfare reform and that I suddenly switched topics to the Wilson matter. . . . To me this suggested that Rove may have testified that we had talked about welfare reform, and indeed earlier in the week, I may have left a message with his office asking if I could talk to him about welfare reform. But I can't find any record of talking about it with him on July 11, and I don't recall doing so."

Lorne Manley and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "Mr. Cooper's article, a rare look inside the deliberations from a prime participant in this political and journalistic drama, is likely to add fuel to a political firestorm over whether there was a White House effort to disclose Ms. Wilson's identity as payback for her husband's criticism of the administration."

The Scooter Libby (Not) News

Lots of headlines in the past 24 hours about how I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was Cooper's second source for the story that identified Plame as a CIA officer.

But it's not exactly news.

Here's Susan Schmidt in The Washington Post on Oct. 16, 2004: "During a July 12, 2003, conversation, according to a source involved in the investigation, Time reporter Matthew Cooper told Libby that he had been informed by other reporters that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee. Libby, the source said, replied that he had heard the same thing, also from the press corps."

That said, I guess it's news that Cooper has now publicly confirmed it.

And the Associated Press does a nice job of pulling together previous denials by White House spokesman Scott McClellan that Libby (or Rove, or Elliot Abrams, Bush's deputy national security adviser for the Mideast, for that matter) were involved in the leak.

More to Come?

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "If Karl Rove was source No. 2, who was source No. 1?. . . .

"The question has some Republicans worried. . . .

" 'There are other shoes to drop here,' warned an advisor to the GOP leadership in Congress, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak freely. 'There are people who haven't come out yet. There could be indictments. And that would cast an entirely different shadow on the matter.' "

Tough Talk from a Tough Prosecutor

Jonathan Darman and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek that "as new details emerge about White House efforts to discredit Iraq-war critic Joe Wilson and his CIA agent wife, Washington insiders are seeing Fitzgerald in a new light. Maybe his hard-nosed investigation will do more than just punish reporters. Maybe Fitzgerald's leak investigation will actually uncover who leaked."

And here's precisely what you don't want to hear from a federal prosecutor: "Last week, Newsweek has learned, after Time's Matthew Cooper provided grand-jury testimony on his July 11, 2003, conversation with Karl Rove, Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, placed a call to Fitzgerald to make sure he didn't need anything more from Rove in light of Cooper's claims. Fitzgerald didn't bite: 'We'll get back to you,' the prosecutor replied curtly and quickly got off the line."

The Top Secret Memo

Richard Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Prosecutors in the C.I.A. leak case have shown intense interest in a 2003 State Department memorandum that explained how a former diplomat came to be dispatched on an intelligence-gathering mission and the role of his wife, a C.I.A. officer, in the trip, people who have been officially briefed on the case said.

"Investigators in the case have been trying to learn whether officials at the White House and elsewhere in the administration learned of the C.I.A. officer's identity from the memorandum. They are seeking to determine if any officials then passed the name along to journalists and if officials were truthful in testifying about whether they had read the memo, the people who have been briefed said, asking not to be named because the special prosecutor heading the investigation had requested that no one discuss the case."

The Top Secret Memo . . . And Ari

Richard Keil and William Roberts write for Bloomberg: "On the same day the memo was prepared, White House phone logs show [syndicated columnist Robert] Novak placed a call to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, according to lawyers familiar with the case and a witness who has testified before the grand jury. Those people say it is not clear whether Fleischer returned the call, and Fleischer has refused to comment.

"The Novak call may loom large in the investigation because Fleischer was among a group of administration officials who left Washington later that day on a presidential trip to Africa. On the flight to Africa, Fleischer was seen perusing the State Department memo on Wilson and his wife, according to a former administration official who was also on the trip."

Did a Reporter Do It?

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "Although enormous attention has recently been focused on the question of what information might have passed from government sources in Washington to reporters, the case involving the disclosure of a covert C.I.A. operative's identity has also pointed out that information sometimes flows the other way."

Asked whether New York Times reporter Judith Miller might have provided information about Plame to government sources, George Freeman, an assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company told Liptak: "Judy learned about Valerie Plame from a confidential source or sources whose identity she continues to protect to this day. If the suggestion is that she is covering up for her source or some fictitious source, that is preposterous. Given that she is suffering in jail, it is also mean-spirited."

Just Catching Up?

Not sure what this story is all about?

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen got readers of the Sunday Washington Post up to speed with an overview. For instance, they write: "It is now clear: There has been an element of pretense to the White House strategy of dealing with the Plame case since the earliest days of the saga."

Why Rove and Libby Cared

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were intensely focused on discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV in the days after he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times suggesting the administration manipulated intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq, federal investigators have been told. . . .

"Although lower-level White House staffers typically handle most contacts with the media, Rove and Libby began personally communicating with reporters about Wilson, prosecutors were told.

"A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House. When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove reportedly responded: 'He's a Democrat.' "

Rovian Antics

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about Rove's antics on Friday's North Carolina trip.

Rove "made a show of his trademark pranks. During a tour of a cotton yarn plant, Mr. Rove tapped a reporter on the shoulder and then handed him a bottle of Tylenol, apparently pulled out of an open pocket in the reporter's backpack. Then Mr. Rove said that the reporter looked like he could use the painkiller.

"On the tarmac in North Carolina, while Mr. Bush, in his shirt-sleeves, signed autographs, Mr. Rove held up the president's suit jacket in a circle of reporters, as if to say that he was no more than a coat holder. But Mr. Rove refused to answer any questions and quickly trundled toward the waiting Air Force One."

As for Bush, Bumiller was able to sidle up to him on the tarmac very briefly and ask him if he still had faith in Rove. In her pool report, Bumiller wrote: "The question was met with a stare straight ahead, silence and a quick brush-off motion of Bush's left hand, as if the president were swatting away an insect."

The Hadley E-Mail

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press about an e-mail Rove apparently sent then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley on July 11, 2003.

" 'I didn't take the bait,' Rove wrote in the message, disclosed to The Associated Press. . . .

"'Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming. . . . When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger. Isn't this damaging? Hasn't the president been hurt? I didn't take the bait, but I said if I were him I wouldn't get Time far out in front on this.' "

Falling Off Message

Paul Harris writes in the Observer: "The so-called 'Valerie Plame affair' has the Bush administration in a panic."

U.S. News writes that "for now, the issue has upset what passes for the balance of power in Washington. . . .

"Whatever the case, the normally hypereffective White House spin machine threw a rod.' . . .

"Senior White House officials fretted that the controversy would depress President Bush's public approval ratings still further and considered mounting a public defense, but they opted to wait out the storm, expecting the issue, eventually, to blow away. 'Rove is personally cool as a cucumber,' said one adviser. 'He has a heck of a lot more information than the rest of us.' "

Opinion Watch

Bob Schieffer had a commentary on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday: "What if the president had just called in his top people in the beginning of all this, and said, 'Folks, we have a problem here. I need to know who's been talking to Bob Novak...' That's what presidents used to do, and they're usually pretty good at finding out, when they really want to know. . . .

"Instead, this White House did what it usually does when challenged: It went into attack mode. . . .

"Now, two years and millions of tax dollars later, the president's trusted friend and strategist, Karl Rove, has emerged as the top suspect and we're left to wonder: Can anything said from the White House podium be taken at face value? Or does the White House just deny automatically anything that reflects badly on it?"

John Tierney writes in the New York Times: "What do you call a scandal that's not scandalous?


Frank Rich writes in the New York Times: "This case is about Iraq, not Niger. The real victims are the American people, not the Wilsons. The real culprit - the big enchilada, to borrow a 1973 John Ehrlichman phrase from the Nixon tapes - is not Mr. Rove but the gang that sent American sons and daughters to war on trumped-up grounds and in so doing diverted finite resources, human and otherwise, from fighting the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. That's why the stakes are so high: this scandal is about the unmasking of an ill-conceived war, not the unmasking of a C.I.A. operative who posed for Vanity Fair."

Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek column that "for all of the complexities of the Valerie Plame case, for all the questions raised about the future of investigative journalism and the fate of the most influential aide to an American president since Louis Howe served Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years ago, this story is fundamentally about how easy it was to get into Iraq and how hard it will be to get out."

Stanley Crouch writes in the New York Daily News: "If things get much worse for Rove, we will find ourselves at another of those points when a spotlight is cast upon the nature of our American system, its resilience and its hard won ability to deal with the abuse of power."

Cartoon Watch

Slate's Cartoon Box and Daryl Cagle 's professional cartoon index are both collecting Karl Rove political cartoons. Quite the treasure troves.

Covert Ops in Iraq?

Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker that despite congressional objections, the White House went ahead with a plan to covertly manipulate Iraq's Jan. 30 elections in favor of Ayad Allawi, who had been installed by the United States as Iraq's interim prime minister.

"I was informed by several former military and intelligence officials that the activities were kept, in part, 'off the books' -- they were conducted by retired C.I.A. officers and other non-government personnel, and used funds that were not necessarily appropriated by Congress," Hersh writes.

"In my reporting for this story, one theme that emerged was the Bush Administration's increasing tendency to turn to off-the-books covert actions to accomplish its goals. This allowed the Administration to avoid the kind of stumbling blocks it encountered in the debate about how to handle the elections: bureaucratic infighting, congressional second-guessing, complaints from outsiders."

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush authorized covert plans last year to support the election campaigns of Iraqis with close ties to the White House, but government and intelligence officials said yesterday the plan was scrapped before the January vote."

She writes that administration officials dispute several of Hersh's claims.

Douglas Jehl and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "In a statement issued in response to questions about a report in the next issue of The New Yorker, Frederick Jones, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said that 'in the final analysis, the president determined and the United States government adopted a policy that we would not try - and did not try - to influence the outcome of the Iraqi election by covertly helping individual candidates for office.'

"The statement appeared to leave open the question of whether any covert help was provided to parties favored by Washington, an issue about which the White House declined to elaborate."

Supreme Court Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, accelerating his search for a new Supreme Court justice, appears to have narrowed his list of candidates to no more than a few finalists and could announce his decision in the next few days, Republican strategists informed about White House plans said yesterday....

"As Bush interviews his finalist or finalists, the White House has kept secret his paring-down process. Some advisers said they increasingly believe the president may pick a woman to replace O'Connor, the nation's first female justice, just as first lady Laura Bush publicly urged him to do last week. 'There's a lot more focus on a woman,' one GOP strategist said."

In Bush's radio address on Saturday, he said: "My nominee will be a fair-minded individual who represents the mainstream of American law and American values."

Novak Watch I: Novak Stays

Lisa de Moraes writes in The Washington Post: "Robert Novak will not get the sack as contributor to CNN for his role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, at least while an investigation is being conducted, CNN/US president Jonathan Klein said yesterday."

Novak Watch II: Card Goes?

Robert Novak wrote in his syndicated column yesterday: "Super-lobbyist Ed Gillespie has been given his own office in the West Wing of the White House to manage President Bush's Supreme Court confirmation battle. That raised speculation Gillespie could be chief of staff for the end of the Bush presidency. . . .

"Insiders believe Gillespie, a protege of Bush political adviser Karl Rove, is being groomed to replace Andrew Card as chief of staff for Bush's last two years as president."

Tonight's Big Dinner

Roxanne Roberts writes in The Washington Post: "There's a big black-tie dinner at the White House tonight. President Bush will don a tuxedo and might even stay up past 10. This is, as they say in Texas, rarer than hen's teeth.

"The dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (technically an 'official' instead of 'state' dinner because Singh is head of government but not the state) is notable as one of the few grand parties of this administration. The White House has hosted only four state dinners since Bush took office in 2001; the last one was held in October 2003 for the president of Kenya. It's a big deal for India, and for the White House."

Cheney's Acid Reflux

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney has a mild case of esophagitis and some small dilation of the arteries behind both knees, his office said Saturday after he completed a two-part annual physical....

"Esophagitis frequently occurs when acid-containing fluid flows from the stomach back into the esophagus."

End of a Super Double Secret

Cooper talked to Howard Kurtz on CNN yesterday, and solved one of the lesser mysteries of the case.

"KURTZ: A lot of people have picked up on your description in the memos to your bureau chief of that conversation -- 'It was on double super secret background.' What did that mean?

"COOPER: Well, Howie, I can now reveal that it was a joke. Karl Rove, when we had the conversation, wanted it to be on deep background, which I took to mean I could use the material but not quote it directly, and certainly not attribute it, that I had to protect the identity of my source. When I wrote the note to my bureau chief, just moments after the conversation with Rove, in a slightly playful way, I echoed the line in the movie 'Animal House,' where John Belushi's wild fraternity is put on double secret probation. So it was a little bit of humor. . . . "

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive