Deflecting Responsibility

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 27, 2005; 1:07 PM

Ever since it started becoming clear that the war in Iraq was based on exaggerated and inaccurate assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the Bush White House has found itself, every once in a while, furiously trying to deflect the blame.

The effort has not been entirely successful. Polls show that a majority of Americans now believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about WMDs.

But then again, President Bush did win reelection.

One of the more furious bursts of blame-deflection, of course, came after former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV disclosed in July 2003 that U.S. intelligence officials had plenty of reason to know that there was no evidence to support allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger -- but that Bush chose to assert as much in his 2003 State of the Union speech anyway.

White House officials launched a dual attack -- both of which involved the CIA. On one front, they began assailing Wilson, a process that eventually led to press leaks outing his wife as a CIA agent. On the other front, they forced the CIA to take responsibility for not having insisted that Bush remove the famous "16 words" from his address.

No official body has thus far investigated the White House's use of intelligence in the run-up to war, or whether it was fair for the White House to blame the CIA and other agencies, instead of taking the blame itself. The Senate intelligence committee chose to put that issue off indefinitely and the Silberman-Robb "WMD Commission" was explicitly not authorized to do so.

But now comes today's news from Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei on the front page of The Washington Post: "The special prosecutor in the CIA leak probe has interviewed a wider range of administration officials than was previously known, part of an effort to determine whether anyone broke laws during a White House effort two years ago to discredit allegations that President Bush used faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, according to several officials familiar with the case. . . .

"In doing so, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked not only about how CIA operative Valerie Plame's name was leaked but also how the administration went about shifting responsibility from the White House to the CIA for having included 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium from Africa, an assertion that was later disputed."

So in addition to those we knew about before, who has talked to prosecutors? "[F]ormer CIA director George J. Tenet and deputy director John E. McLaughlin, former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, State Department officials, and even a stranger who approached columnist Robert D. Novak on the street," Pincus and VandeHei write.

"Based on the questions they have been asked, people involved in the case believe that Fitzgerald looked into this bureaucratic fight because the effort to discredit Wilson was part of the larger campaign to distance Bush from the Niger controversy."

There's lot of new details there, including this one: "Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with [columnist Robert] Novak at least three days before the column was published. He said he warned Novak, in the strongest terms he was permitted to use without revealing classified information, that Wilson's wife had not authorized the mission and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed."

Novak Speaks, Says Nothing (Again)

You may remember that Novak gave an extended on-air no comment to his CNN colleagues last month. (See my June 30 column.)

CNN's Candy Crowley sweetly sought some scraps yesterday.

"CROWLEY: I wanted to talk to you about the CIA leak story, because a couple of things have come out that I wanted to see if I could get you to talk about. The first one is that there is a story out there that Karl Rove testified that you were the one that told him that Valerie Plame was at the CIA.

"NOVAK: Well I can't talk about anything that I have done. But I would say that it's, to me, very interesting that all these leaks on the grand jury are not coming from the grand jury, or, as far as I know, or from the special prosecutor, they are coming from lawyers for various people who are participating in it, or the participants themselves. Which is a little bit on the unusual side. . . .

"I noticed that this has revived the whole story which is the reason I haven't been on television very much lately. . . . [A]nd the Democrats are trying to make a lot of it. But I think this is a hard story to keep alive until the grand jury and special prosecutor came up with something.

"CROWLEY: Well outside whether you testify -- I assume you can't tell us whether you testified at the grand jury or still won't tell us. Outside of that, can you tell us whether you ever told Karl Rove about Valerie Plame's status?

"NOVAK: I can't tell anything I ever talked to Karl Rove about, because I don't think I ever talked to him about any subject, even the time of day, on the record."

But the liberal Think Progress blog notes what it calls an outright lie right off the bat: Novak never talked to Rove on the record? Then how come he quoted Rove at least twice?

And here are some questions that Novak should be asked, forcefully and directly because as the person who initially published the leak he has a unique obligaion to provide the public with his understaning of what's going on.

· Have you been notified that you are a target of the special prosecutor's investigation?

· It seems pretty obvious, from the fact that you are not currently in jail, that you have cooperated with investigators. Have you indeed met with prosecutors and/or testified before the grand jury? How many times? Under what circumstances?

· Have you disclosed your two sources to the prosecutors and/or grand jury?

· Did you get some sort of waiver from your sources before doing so?

· You have said your lawyer has told you not to comment about the case, even to say whether or not you have testified at all. What, specifically, is his concern? Can we talk to him to confirm that?

· Are you refusing to talk because you're afraid of putting yourself in legal jeopardy? Are you in legal jeopardy? Or is it because Fitzgerald has asked you not to comment? If so, why are you honoring that request?

· Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper felt free to describe his grand jury testimony in detail, including what sorts of questions he was asked. That was a boon to all journalists covering the case. Why won't you do the same?

That's just for starters. Back to you, Candy.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, taking your questions and comments .

Poll Watch

Gallup provides some more details on the poll I wrote about yesterday : "A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds that George W. Bush's personal honesty rating is the lowest of his term, but his ratings apparently have not suffered much, if at all, as a result of the probe into White House leaks of classified information. Only about half of Americans are following the controversy closely, but the prevailing sentiment is that Bush adviser Karl Rove did something unethical, if not illegal, when he revealed the identity of a CIA operative to reporters. . . .

"The July 22-24 poll finds 54% of Americans saying Bush is honest and trustworthy and 44% saying he is not. That is essentially unchanged from a 56% honesty rating found in April, long before the White House leak controversy erupted. In fact, Bush's image on this dimension has been quite stable since the beginning of 2004."

I asked yesterday whether the fact that half of Americans were following the Rove story closely was a lot or a little.

Reader Matthew S. Nelson pointed me to a recent Pew Research Center poll , which reached a similar finding about public interest in the case. Pew wrote: "The survey finds that attention to the Rove story is comparable to interest in past Washington controversies, including the 1997 ethics charges against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's resignation in 2003 following remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. . . . But the story has much greater resonance than the recent ethics complaints made against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay."

Pew has summarized news interest for different stories over the past 20 years here . That page tracks the number of people following a story "very closely" -- that's 23 percent for the Rove story. Consider this: Only 34 percent of American were very closely following the Clinton impeachment in late 1998, when the House was actually voting.

Rove the Headliner

Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post: "Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele hosted the first major fundraiser in his as-yet-undeclared bid for U.S. Senate last night, attracting presidential adviser Karl Rove to headline a $1,000-a-person cocktail party in Washington. . . .

"Democrats dispatched about 35 protesters to the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill to heckle Steele."

All About Ari

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "For the two years since he left the White House -- on the very day in July 2003 that Robert D. Novak printed the name of a Central Intelligence Agency operative in his syndicated newspaper column -- [Ari] Fleischer has been caught up in the investigation of who supplied that information to the columnist and whether it was a crime. . . .

"One person familiar with Mr. Fleischer's testimony said he told the grand jury that he was not Mr. Novak's source."

And Kornblut adds this about Fleischer's boss: "Dan Bartlett, the most senior communications strategist in the White House, has also told investigators that he did not know who Ms. Wilson was, according to a person who has been briefed on the case. . . .

"A background briefing during the trip in which Mr. Bartlett spoke with reporters on an airport tarmac and urged them to look into the C.I.A.'s role in sending Mr. Wilson to Niger has not drawn substantial interest from prosecutors recently."

Yesterday's Grilling

An excerpt from yesterday's briefing by spokesman Scott McClellan:

"Q Scott, in the wake of the Valerie Plame incident, on which you will not comment, intelligence officials have indicated there's a growing concern among operatives in the field, a fear that they might be the targets of political manipulation. And they have indicated that something must be done on the part of the White House to help allay these fears. And given that these people are in the forefront of the war on terror, isn't it necessary to do something more than simply stonewalling all discussion of the incident in order to restore confidence?

"MR. McCLELLAN: And I'll reject your characterization. What we're doing is helping to advance the investigation forward. And the President said he's not going to get into trying to draw conclusions based on reports in the media. Let's let the investigators complete their work."

The 12-Hour Gap

Democrats are calling for answers about the 12-hour lead time White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. got from then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, before Gonzales officially notified the White House staff that there was a criminal inquiry into the Plame matter and that all relevant records should be preserved. (See yesterday's column .)

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer wants answers from Card himself. Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. wants them from the Justice Department's inspector general.

Plame Likes Springsteen

Timothy J. Burger and Massimo Calabresi write in Time.com that "another minor wrinkle emerged that may further draw partisan lines. The Wilsons last year attended an anti-Bush fundraising concert featuring Bruce Springsteen last fall. Federal Election Commission records show the tab: $372 . . . to America Coming Together, a political committee that worked hard to oppose President Bush's re-election, for two floor seats. 'It was great,' Joe Wilson said, returning a call for his wife. 'Remember, this was a year and a half after the Administration compromised the identity of my wife, and it was no great secret that I was doing my bit to educate the American public as to the flaws in the Bush Administration's foreign policy.' "

Turd Blossom Troubles

David Twiddy writes for the Associated Press: "About a dozen newspapers have objected to use of toilet humor in Tuesday's and Wednesday's 'Doonesbury' comic strip, and some either pulled or edited the strip.

"Kansas City-based Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes the strip to around 1,400 newspapers, said it had received some complaints from editors about a reference to presidential aide Karl Rove."

Here's Tuesday's strip , introducing Rove, AKA "Turd Blossom" -- which is, indeed, one of Bush's nicknames for him. (See the final item in my December 10 column for Rove's explanation. )

In today's strip , Turd Blossom gets a promotion.

Monday's strip was by comparison tame: A look at the newly assertive White House press corps.

Poll Watch

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Most Americans don't believe the United States will succeed in winning the war in Iraq or establishing a stable democracy there, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll.

"But an ambivalent public also says sending troops to Iraq wasn't a mistake, a sign that most people aren't yet ready to give up on the war."

Among the other findings: "For the first time, a majority of Americans, 51%, say the Bush administration deliberately misled the public about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- the reason Bush emphasized in making the case for invading. The administration's credibility on the issue has been steadily eroding since 2003."

A new Quinnipiac University national poll finds Bush's approval rating at an all-time low of 41 percent.

Detainee Policy

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's nominee for the second-ranking spot at the Justice Department shed new light Tuesday on the 2002 development of the administration's positions on the treatment of terrorism detainees, but characterized some of the legal conclusions as 'sophomoric.'

"The nominee for deputy attorney general, Timothy E. Flanigan, was at the center of the administration's policies on torture as deputy White House counsel through late 2002.. . . .

"Mr. Flanigan said he was reluctant to state whether he considered several interrogation techniques, including mock executions and the simulated drowning of a prisoner, to be inappropriate or to constitute torture."

James Kuhnhenn writes for Knight Ridder: "The Senate's Republican leader Tuesday derailed a bipartisan effort to set rules for the treatment of enemy prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other military detention camps by abruptly stopping debate on a $491 billion defense bill."

Social Security Watch

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Bush, in a pep talk for a few hundred college students and business backers, said he is 'more committed than ever' to creating personal accounts from Social Security and reducing future scheduled benefits so the program is permanently solvent, according to several attendees."


Jim Abrams writes for the Associated Press: "In a rare piece of lobbying on Capitol Hill, President Bush appealed personally to fellow Republicans Wednesday to close ranks behind a free trade agreement with Central America that faces a very close floor vote."

Paul Blustein and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Cajoling, deal-cutting and browbeating were always in the cards for CAFTA because it is by far the most controversial trade agreement in years. . . .

"A defeat would deal a major setback to President Bush's second-term agenda, exposing him as vulnerable to Republican defections at a time when his political clout has increasingly been called into question. It would also deepen doubts about the ability of DeLay, who has been hobbled by ethics charges, to keep his troops in line."

Today's Calendar

Bush travels to the Army's Fort A.P. Hill to address the Boy Scouts Jamboree tonight.

Get a Job

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "Andrew H. Card Jr. had some candid advice for 2,000 Washington interns who gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building on Monday evening to hear him speak at an event intended to recruit talented people into the federal civil service. Some of you should go corporate, the White House chief of staff told them."

Successor Worries

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Add to President Bush's list of worries: the 2008 presidential race.

"That's not because he'll be running; he can't. Vice President Cheney insists he's not, either. But the administration has been forced to keep the next campaign in mind because numerous contenders, many of them in the Senate, have presidential bids on their minds as they debate everything from the Iraq war to the Supreme Court."

Line of Succession

The Associated Press reports that the Senate has passed a bill changing the order of those in line to assume the presidency if President Bush is unable to serve.


CBS White House correspondent John Roberts takes questions online, including this one: "I am very happy to ask this question to a White House reporter: Why are some reporters so rude? Why don't the reporters wait for an answer before running ahead to the next question?"

Roberts's reply: "I guess it's all a matter of what you consider 'rude.' The job of any White House Correspondent worth his or her salt is to attempt to get to the truth. This White House is extraordinarily adept at sticking to the message and not imparting any information during the briefing that it doesn't want out there. The Press Secretary comes to the briefing with a set of talking points and sticks to them fastidiously. So the reporters try to knock him off point, usually to no avail."

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