Conflicting Stories

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 22, 2005; 1:22 PM

New reports today indicate that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is zeroing in on conflicting stories officials and reporters have provided his grand jury, lending credence to the theory that he may be considering obstruction of justice or perjury charges against top White House officials.

Bloomberg and the New York Times move the ball forward today, courtesy of what appear to be a growing number of leakers.

And here, culled from those and other reports, are what would seem to be some of the harder-to-reconcile contradictions in the case, which started out as an investigation into who leaked a CIA agent's identity -- but which now could be turning into another testament to the Washington maxim that the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

White House chief political strategist Karl Rove reportedly told the grand jury that he first learned of Valerie Plame's identity from columnist Robert Novak -- but Novak's version of the story is that Rove already knew about her when the two spoke.

Rove didn't mention his conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper to investigators at first and then said it was primarily about welfare reform. But Cooper has testified that the topic of welfare reform didn't came up.

Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby apparently told prosecutors he first heard about Plame from NBC's Tim Russert, but Russert has testified that he neither offered nor received information about Plame in his conversation with Libby.

And former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer apparently told prosecutors that he never saw a classified State Department memo that disclosed Plame's identity, but another former official reportedly saw him perusing it on Air Force One.

Here's the Latest

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg news service: "Two top White House aides have given accounts to a special prosecutor about how reporters first told them the identity of a CIA agent that are at odds with what the reporters have said, according to people familiar with the case.

"Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, told special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that he first learned from NBC News reporter Tim Russert of the identity of Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame, the wife of former ambassador and Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, one person said. Russert has testified before a federal grand jury that he didn't tell Libby of Plame's identity, the person said.

"White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told Fitzgerald that he first learned the identity of the CIA agent from syndicated columnist Robert Novak, according a person familiar with the matter. Novak, who was first to report Plame's name and connection to Wilson, has given a somewhat different version to the special prosecutor, the person said. . . .

"There also is a discrepancy between accounts given by Rove and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper. The White House aide mentioned Wilson's wife -- though not by name -- in a July 11, 2003, conversation with Cooper, the reporter said. Rove, 55, says that Cooper called him to talk about welfare reform and the Wilson connection was mentioned later, in passing.

"Cooper wrote in Time magazine last week that he told the grand jury he never discussed welfare reform with Rove in that call."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times about how Rove and Libby, at the time of the leaks, were "working closely together on a related underlying issue: whether President Bush was correct in suggesting earlier that year that Iraq had been trying to acquire nuclear materials from Africa."

Johnston, attributing the information to "people who have been briefed on the case," describes how Rove and Libby were deeply involved, for instance, in drafting a key statement by CIA director George J. Tenet.

The leakers of this new tidbit, Johnston writes, believe it shows that Rove and Libby "were not involved in an orchestrated scheme to discredit Mr. Wilson or disclose the undercover status of his wife" -- but that, in essence, the disclosure of her identity was just collateral damage in the orchestrated scheme to defend against charges that the administration had exaggerated the nuclear threat posed by Iraq.

That might tend to exculpate them from a criminal leaking charge. But it demonstrates, as Johnston writes, "the unusual degree" to which political and national security operations were intertwined.

And Johnston adds this new report to the mix, regarding the classified State Department memo and the former press secretary: "Mr. Fleischer told the grand jury that he never saw the document, a person familiar with the testimony said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the prosecutor's admonitions about not disclosing what is said to the grand jury."

But wait! Richard Keil and William Roberts wrote for Bloomberg on Monday: "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."

Here is a New York Times timeline of the case.

Keeping the Story Alive

Scott Shepard writes for Cox News Service: "Congressional Democrats will conduct an unofficial hearing today that may return public attention to White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and any role he had in disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence officer whose husband criticized pre-war intelligence President Bush used to justify the war in Iraq. . . .

"Democrats contend they have to hold their own unofficial hearing because the Republican leadership of the House and Senate refuses to conduct an official inquiry into whether the Bush White House leaked information about Plame in an attempt to discredit her husband."

John Harwood (subscription required) writes in the Wall Street Journal that Democratic strategists have concluded that Bush's nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court "may be unstoppable, and look to maintain earlier momentum from CIA leak case and other issues. . . .

" 'Our strategy now is to essentially let Roberts go . . . then get back on Rove, Social Security and the Iraq war,' says a senior Congressional aide."

Harwood adds: "Democrats plan to grill Bush confidant Karen Hughes about leak-case in her confirmation hearing for State Department public diplomacy post."

Karen Hughes?

Karen Hughes? Isn't she still in Texas?

No, she's finally back in Washington today for a confirmation hearing on her nomination to be undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department.

And as Johnston explains in the New York Times, as part of the confirmation process, Hughes was forced to divulge to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she was interviewed by the special prosecutor.

Al Kamen notes in today's Washington Post that "in her acclaimed book 'Ten Minutes from Normal,' the former White House counselor opines about the investigation into the leak on Valerie Plame. She suspects columnist Robert D. Novak's sources may have been in one of the agencies, not the White House.

" 'But regardless of the source, the leak compromised the confidential identity of a longtime public servant, which was wrong, and unfair to her and those who worked with her. Whoever did it should come forward and not hide behind journalistic ethics for his or her self-protection.' "

John Bolton?

And Johnston also includes this tantalizing sentence in his New York Times story today: "Democrats who have been eager to focus attention on the case have urged reporters to look into the role of several other administration officials, including John R. Bolton, who was then under secretary of state for arms control and international security and has since been nominated by Mr. Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations."

The Brits

Leave it to the Brits to seek the big picture.

Julian Borger profiles Rove in the Guardian: "There has never been a partnership like it in US political history -- so close and continuing so seamlessly from campaign trail to government. Never has a consultant, a hired mechanic in the political engineroom, risen so high.

"The official title, deputy White House chief of staff, does not do him justice. At the age of 54 and without a college degree, Rove is the second or third most powerful man in the US (arguably therefore the world) depending on where you place Dick Cheney. . . .

"Yet now, at the zenith of his career, Rove seems at his most vulnerable. A Washington scandal he tried to brush off two years ago has broken the surface again and threatens to pull him under."

Rupert Cornwell writes in the Independent: "Ah, for a scandal to while away the sticky days of high summer in the capital of the free world. This one has the lot. Featured ingredients include a glamorous CIA agent, a jailed journalist and a scandal-starved Washington press in hot pursuit of dastardly White House shenanigans. At the centre of the storm is Karl Rove, George Bush's closest adviser, architect of his election triumphs and attributed with satanic political powers by reporters and frustrated Democrats alike."

Cornwell ultimately concludes: "This tacky, third-rate leak that is starting to scar the President's second term springs from the great deception executed in his first term, luring the US into a war that 60 per cent of Americans now believe was misconceived.

"That is the true scandal, which has yet to be properly explained."

Yesterday's Grilling

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing by press secretary Scott McClellan. After a bit of chatter about the London bombings, Hearst columnist Helen Thomas started things off with a bang:

Thomas: "Why does Karl Rove still have security clearance and access to classified documents when he has been revealed as a leaker of a secret agent, according to Time magazine's correspondent?"

McClellan: "Well, there is an investigation that continues, and I think the President has made it clear that we're not going to prejudge the outcome of that investigation."

Thomas: "You already have the truth."

McClellan: "We're not going to prejudge the outcome of that investigation through --

Thomas: "Does he have access to security documents?"

McClellan: " -- through media reports. And these questions came up over the last week -- "

Thomas: "Did he leak the name of a CIA agent?"

McClellan: "As I was trying to tell you, these questions have been answered."

Thomas: "No, they haven't."

David Gregory, NBC News: "Let me ask -- "

McClellan: "Go ahead, David."

Gregory: "And they most certainly haven't. I think Helen is right, and the people watching us know that. And related to that, there are now --"

McClellan: "Let me correct the record. We've said for quite some time that this was an ongoing investigation, and that we weren't going to comment on it, so let me just correct the record."

Gregory: "If you want to make the record clear, then you also did make comments when a criminal investigation was underway, you saw fit to provide Karl Rove with a blanket statement of absolution. And that turned out to be no longer accurate --."

After a while, McClellan had this to say about the whole line of questioning: "I thank you for wanting to proceed ahead with the investigation from this room, but I think that the appropriate place for that to happen is through those who are overseeing the investigation. The President directed us to cooperate fully, and that's exactly what we have been doing and continue to do."

The Roberts Nomination

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "For at least a year before the nomination of Judge John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court, the White House was working behind the scenes to shore up support for him among its social conservative allies, quietly reassuring them that he was a good bet for their side in cases about abortion, same-sex marriage and public support for religion.

"When the White House began testing the name of Judge Roberts on a short list of potential nominees, many social conservatives were skeptical. . . .

"But with a series of personal testimonials about Judge Roberts, his legal work, his Roman Catholic faith, and his wife's public opposition to abortion, two well-connected Christian conservative lawyers -- Leonard Leo, chairman of Catholic outreach for the Republican Party, and Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of an evangelical Protestant legal center founded by Pat Robertson -- gradually won over most social conservatives to nearly unanimous support, even convincing them that the lack of a paper trail was an asset that made Judge Roberts harder to attack.

"Both had been tapped by the White House to build the coalition for judicial confirmation battles."

Gary Fineout and Marc Caputo write in the Miami Herald: "As U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts is scrutinized for everything from his judicial rulings to his abortion views, his role during one of the most memorable times in modern political history remains obscured by imperfect memories and White House-imposed secrecy.

"Roberts was called to the state capital by Gov. Jeb Bush's office during the 2000 presidential election to advise the governor on his role in certifying the disputed results, which ultimately put Bush's brother in the White House."

Veto Threat

Vicki Allen writes for Reuters: "The White House on Thursday threatened to veto a massive Senate bill for $442 billion in next year's defense programs if it moves to regulate the Pentagon's treatment of detainees or sets up a commission to investigate operations at Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere. . . .

"Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who endured torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said after meeting at the Capitol with Vice President Dick Cheney that he still intended to offer amendments next week 'on the standard of treatment of prisoners.' "

McCain is among at least three Republicans working on amendments "intended to prevent further abuses in the wake of the scandal over sexual abuse and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and harsh, degrading interrogations at Guantanamo," Allen writes.

Anybody Listening?

Bush gave a speech at the Organization of American States yesterday. Here's the text . It was mostly about CAFTA.

But the wire services barely covered it. CNN cut away from their London reporting when Bush started speaking, but after hearing Bush say "There's nothing more beautiful than freedom," cut right back to the news.

And unless I missed it, there was not one word about his speech in this morning's Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times or Wall Street Journal.

Today's Calendar

Bush is off to Atlanta today. He is chatting about Medicare at a senior center and then participating "in a conversation on Senior Security," at the Atlanta Civic Center.

The Associated Press notes that tickets to the civic center event were given out by Georgia congressmen and a few chambers of commerce.

Bush is off to Camp David later tonight, and has a light to nonexistent public schedule for next week.

Fund-Raising Watch

Peter Whoriskey and John Wagner write in The Washington Post: "The first couple stepped out separately yesterday evening for destinations in the Washington suburbs: President Bush set off for a 'very intimate dinner' at a McLean estate overlooking the Potomac River; first lady Laura Bush headed for a North Bethesda hotel. . . .

"Their appearances, essentially an hour or so of face time, raised roughly $2.3 million for Republican leaders in Maryland and Virginia. . . .

"The invitation to Dwight and Martha Schar's luxurious home by the Potomac River in McLean beckoned with the promise of proximity to power: a 'very intimate dinner,' it proposed, with 'our very special guest President George W. Bush.' "

Tableau Watch

Fashion writer Robin Givhan writes in The Washington Post: "It has been a long time since so much syrupy nostalgia has been in evidence at the White House. But Tuesday night, when President Bush announced his choice for the next associate justice of the Supreme Court, it was hard not to marvel at the 1950s-style tableau vivant that was John Roberts and his family."

Exercise Watch

As I noted yesterday, Elisabeth Bumiller had a story in the New York Times in which she wrote: "When President Bush sat down in the White House residence last Thursday to interview a potential Supreme Court nominee, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, he asked him about the hardest decision he had ever made -- and also how much he exercised.

" 'Well, I told him I ran three and a half miles a day,' Judge Wilkinson recalled in a telephone interview on Wednesday. 'And I said my doctor recommends a lot of cross-training, but I said I didn't want to do the elliptical and the bike and the treadmill.' The president, Judge Wilkinson said, 'took umbrage at that,' and told his potential nominee that he should do the cross-training his doctor suggested."

Blogger Brendan Nyhan yesterday mocked what he calls "affirmative action for the fit" in the Bush White House.

And Jonathan Chait writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column this morning: "Bush has an obsession with exercise that borders on the creepy. . . .

"Bush's insistence that the entire populace follow his example, and that his staff join him on a Long March -- er, Long Run -- carries about it the faint whiff of a cult of personality. It also shows how out of touch he is. It's nice for Bush that he can take an hour or two out of every day to run, bike or pump iron. Unfortunately, most of us have more demanding jobs than he does."

Late Night Humor

Paul Brownfield writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Two seemingly unrelated things have happened lately on 'The Daily Show With Jon Stewart': There's a new set, and the show has gotten great play out of the Karl Rove CIA leak scandal/not a scandal. . . .

" 'The Daily Show,' which one night called the story 'Rove Actually,' " is "feasting off of it, mixing the story's convoluted and coded elements with easy pop culture references."

Brownfield calls special attention to this already legendary segment from last week, in which Stewart showed one of McClellan's recent grillings, and announced, sotto voce: "We've secretly replaced the White House press corps with actual reporters."

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