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Where's Karl Rove?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 9, 2007; 3:08 PM

Denis Collins, a juror in the Scooter Libby trial, wasn't just channeling his fellow jurors on Tuesday when he faced the microphones and asked: "Where's Rove?"

Collins's point was that Libby, who he had just helped convict on obstruction-of-justice charges, was quite obviously not the only person involved in the politically motivated outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Rove managed to wiggle off prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's hook in June with a just-in-time recanting of earlier testimony in which he -- just like Libby -- misinformed investigators about his role. (See my June 13, 2006 column, Fitzgerald Leaves Questions Unanswered.)

And in spite of President Bush's assurances that anyone involved in the leak of Plame's identity to journalists would be fired, Rove -- who eventually admitted confirming Plame's identity to Robert Novak and volunteering it to Matthew Cooper -- is still on the White House payroll.

But since the Democratic sweep in the November elections, the "architect" of the previous three Republican victories has been largely out of public view.

So where is Rove? And what is the master manipulator up to?

It turns out he's alive and well and plotting in his windowless West Wing office just how to spin Bush's greatest weakness into a great strength -- and in that way burnish his boss's legacy.

With Iraq representing such a vivid indictment of the Bush Doctrine, you might think Rove would be steering away from that particular expression of the president's world view when it comes to the matter of legacies.

The Bush Doctrine -- which I have long thought was quite dead; see my March 16 and July 10 columns from last year -- maintains that regimes that harbor terrorists are as culpable as the terrorists themselves and that the U.S. is entitled to take preventative military action to neutralize potential threats before they have materialized.

As Iraq has shown, it turns out the Bush Doctrine is a recipe for launching disastrous and unpopular wars for unfounded reasons. But Rove's most successful moves have often been somewhat counterintuitive (such as going after John Kerry's war record.)

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "While he has kept a low profile in Washington since the midterm election losses took some of the edge off his reputation as a political genius, Rove, a Bush senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, has begun trying to put his own distinctive spin on current events and the longer historical view."

Abramowitz interviewed Rove this week in his office and was in the audience yesterday in Little Rock, when Rove give a speech about the debts that presidents owe their predecessors.

"He waxed at length about Harry S. Truman's creation of the National Security Council and Clinton's National Economic Council, and how both institutions have made the modern president stronger and more effective.

"His point was that presidents often come to adopt institutions and policies created by their predecessors, and Rove clearly suggests that this will one day happen as well to the institutions and policies shaped by Bush. . . .

"He said that the biggest Bush legacy will be what he terms the 'Bush doctrine.' . . .

"Rove rejected the suggestion that future presidents might be deterred from the Bush doctrine by the enduring violence and unintended consequences let loose by the invasion of Iraq. 'Could be,' he said. 'But it has a logic of force and nature and reality that will cause people to examine it, adjust it, test it, resist it -- but ultimately embrace it.' . . .

"The inference is that while would-be presidents may criticize tactics such as his military tribunals and warrantless electronic surveillance, they will come to recognize the necessity of such policies in a protracted struggle against Islamic radicalism."

There is something undeniably muscular about Bush's approach. But Rove's big problem is that it doesn't necessarily work. Sometimes, in fact, it backfires quite spectacularly. And history, I suspect, will only bear that out more and more clearly.

Or, as Paul C. Light, a scholar of U.S. government at New York University, told Abramowitz: "I don't think their gifts to future presidents are particularly grand."

There are some particularly tough questions Rove needs to answer, such as how he justifies his role in the Plame leak. It's not clear whether Abramowitz even asked. But John Lyon writes for the Arkansas News Bureau that at the Little Rock event, "Rove said he was advised by White House counsel not to comment on Libby's conviction."

Signing Statements and National Security Letters

John Solomon and Barton Gellman write in The Washington Post: "A Justice Department investigation has found pervasive errors in the FBI's use of its power to secretly demand telephone, e-mail and financial records in national security cases, officials with access to the report said yesterday.

"The inspector general's audit found 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations -- some of which were potential violations of law -- in a sampling of 293 'national security letters.' The letters were used by the FBI to obtain the personal records of U.S. residents or visitors between 2003 and 2005. The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases."

But Glenn Greenwald writes in Salon with an important point overlooked in all the mainstream coverage today: The National Security Letter reporting requirements passed by Congress "were precisely the provisions which President Bush expressly proclaimed he could ignore when he issued a 'signing statement' as part of the enactment of the Patriot Act's renewal into law. Put another way, the law which the FBI has now been found to be violating is the very law which George Bush publicly declared he has the power to ignore. . . .

"It was The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage who first drew attention to the Patriot Act signing statement in a typically superb article, back in March, 2006, which reported: 'When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.' . . .

"Back in November, 2005, when the re-authorization of the Patriot Act was being 'debated,' the abuse by the FBI of these NSLs was documented in an excellent expose by The Washington Post's Barton Gellman."

Greenwald concludes: "One of the very few attempts over the last six years from Congress to impose at least some safeguards on the use of radical new executive powers was to require that the FBI report to Congress on the issuance of NSLs, so that Congress could at least know about (and, theoretically, take action in response to) any abuse of these powers. But the minute George Bush got what he wanted -- re-authorization of the Patriot Act -- he proclaimed for all the world to hear that he had the power to violate those provisions and refuse to comply with such safeguards. And now it is revealed that the FBI has, in fact, violated the very provisions which the President proclaimed he could violate."

Could this be the "smoking gun" for Bush's controversial signing statements?

Up until now, it's not been at all clear whether Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements represented just a lot of ideological bluster -- or an actual intent to violate duly enacted laws.

Valerie Plame Watch

Reuters reports: "Valerie Plame, the former covert CIA agent whose cover was blown after her husband accused the White House of manipulating prewar intelligence, will testify before a congressional committee next week, the committee chairman said Thursday.

"Plame will testify about the disclosure and how the White House handled it in an appearance before the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Chairman Henry Waxman said in a statement.

"Waxman, a California Democrat, also sent a letter to the special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation ... asking for a meeting to discuss the possibility of Fitzgerald testifying before the House committee."

From the letter: "By necessity, your investigation had a narrow legal focus: Were any federal criminal statutes violated by White House officials? Your investigation, however, has raised broader questions of national significance. I am writing to invite you to meet to discuss how the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is the principal oversight committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, can become informed of your views about these broader issues. ...

"[T]he trial proceedings raise questions about whether senior White House officials, including the Vice President and Senior Advisor to the President Karl Rove, complied with the requirements governing the handling of classified information. They also raise questions about whether the White House took appropriate remedial action following the leak. . . . Your perspective on these matters is important.

"After the verdict was announced yesterday, one juror expressed the view that former Chief of Staff to the Vice President Lewis 'Scooter' Libby was only a 'fall guy.' This juror's views encapsulated questions that many in Congress and the public have about whether the ultimate responsibility for the outing of Ms. Wilson rests with more senior officials in the White House. This is another area where you have a unique perspective."

Scooter Libby Opinion Watch

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the evidence of recent days should settle the case: This administration has operated on the basis of a hyperpartisanship not seen in decades. Worse, the destroy-the-opposition, our-team-vs.-their-team approach has infected large parts of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. That's a shame, since there are plenty of good people in both. Still, the tendency to subordinate principles to win short-term victories and cover up for the administration is, alas, rampant on the right.

"Take the rush of conservative organs demanding an immediate pardon of Scooter Libby after his conviction on four counts related to lying and obstruction of justice. . . .

"In other words, when an impartial judicial system does something that conservatives don't like, the will of conservatives, not the rule of law, should triumph."

One of those conservative organs, Charles Krauthammer, writes in his Washington Post opinion column that a presidential pardon for Libby "should be granted now without any further delay."

But Krauthammer seems to have not paid any attention to the prosecution case that convinced a unanimous federal jury of Libby's guilt.

For instance, Krauthammer writes: "Everyone agrees that Fitzgerald's perjury case against Libby hung on the testimony of NBC's Tim Russert."

In fact, the heart of Fitzgerald's meticulous case was proving that Libby had spoken to so many people about Plame before he had his conversation with Russert that even if Russert had told him about Plame -- which Russert denied -- it was flatly a lie when he insisted that was the first time he'd heard it.

The Russert conversation took place on either July 10 or 11 in 2003.

Fitzgerald argued in his closing: "You don't need Tim Russert's evidence to find the defendant guilty even on the Tim Russert count."

Even if Russert had been "run over by a bus a month ago and went to that great news desk in the sky instead of coming in here to testify . . . you could still find plenty of evidence that the defendant was not surprised on July 10th or 11th. Because he learned it from the Vice President. He learned it from Bob Grenier of the CIA. He learned it from [Cheney spokesman] Cathie Martin. He learned it from [State Department official] Marc Grossman. He shared it with [CIA briefer] Craig Schmall. . . . He told [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller on June 23rd. He told [press secretary] Ari Fleischer on July 7th. He told Judith Miller on July 8th. He discussed the spouse with [Cheney's counsel] David Addington July 8th. You know you're not surprised about something on Thursday when you give it out Monday and Tuesday and repeated times."

And juror Collins said that although "most" of the jurors thought Russert was very credible, "there were a few people who thought, 'No, he probably had that conversation.' So, for purposes of arguing that point, we spent I don't know a day and a half, assuming it was true."

And they still all eventually voted to convict.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The White House would like to strip the guilty verdicts against Lewis 'Scooter' Libby of any larger meaning. The White House also would like to change the subject.

"'I think there has been an attempt to try to use this as a great big wheelbarrow in which to dump a whole series of unrelated issues and say, "Aha,"' press secretary Tony Snow said Wednesday. 'And it is what it is; it's a case involving Scooter Libby and his recollections, and we're just not going to comment further on it.'

"All right, then, dump everything out of the wheelbarrow except one rather weighty question: Did George W. Bush and his Cabinet lead the nation into war on false pretenses? Specifically, did Bush and the others know full well -- or, at a bare minimum, should they have known -- that the rhetoric they used to convince Americans of imminent peril from Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction was based on sketchy, disputed and even fraudulent evidence?"

Robinson concludes that either they misread the intelligence -- "a grievous error" -- or they intentionally hyped it -- "a crime."

Michael Kinsley writes in Time with the most overly cynical, world-weary and contrarian argument I have heard yet for Libby to be pardoned: That compared to his colleagues at the White House, Libby's only crime was that he got caught:

"[Pile up] all the lies told by this Administration in advancing its war in Iraq. Rank them in importance. Where would you put Scooter Libby's unconvincing faulty memory about who told what to whom about Valerie Plame Wilson? Not very high, I think. If President Bush has a shred of humanity in him -- if he has suffered even a tiny moment of doubt about this huge and tragic mess he has gotten our country into -- how can he let the clock tick him out of office without pardoning a very small player in this tragedy, but the one who happened to get caught?"

Editorial Watch

What do folks think about this outside the Beltway? A non-scientific survey of smaller-paper editorials:

Toledo Blade: "Scooter Libby should go to prison for his part in the White House's shameful campaign of retaliation against an administration war critic. And no, he doesn't deserve a pardon.

"But a pardon won't wipe away the indelible stain of impropriety from an administration that has tried to steamroller its critics by concocting lies and fabrications."

Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle: "Fall guy or not, Libby made his choices, and the verdict was true to the evidence.

"A pardon would be political interference of a kind that got Libby and his bosses in trouble in the first place."

Pensacola (Fla.) News-Journal: "It is crucial that staffers such as Libby know that if they break the law to protect their bosses -- even for political reasons -- they risk jail."

Times-Herald of Vallejo Calif.: "It's essential that the president let justice run its course and allow Libby to pay for his crimes.

"In the meantime, it's time that the 'cloud' hanging over Washington that Fitzgerald spoke of be lifted. The president and the vice president can start the process with some straight answers to some left-over questions.

"Did the president lie about the role of the White House in this saga? Or was he merely kept in the dark by high-ranking officials who went against his order to come clean?

"Either way, it's time for some straight answers from someone other than Mr. Libby."

Lessons Learned

Paula Zahn spoke with Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund about the effects of the Libby case on Cheney;

Fund: "Look, Dick Cheney's role in the Bush White House was diminished a little bit starting two years ago. This is not a new story.

"Any time you have a president that is in the low 30s in approval rating, you're going to get the search for scapegoats and you're going to get people settling scores within the administration.

"The bigger story here is not what's happened to Dick Cheney. The bigger story is the civil war that's broken out in the administration. This is an administration that used to be very united, never leaked. And now you have everybody sniping at everybody else.

"Dick Cheney has been caught in the crossfire. This -- the Scooter Libby story doesn't change materially Dick Cheney's standing. He's still first among equals among the president's advisers. What has happened is, it's exposed the incredible desire to settle scores and to assign blame within the entire administration."

Matt Stearns writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Libby case . . . illustrates that too many elite members of the media are more interested in cultivating Washington power brokers than in maintaining skeptical, independent and arms-length relationships with them, challenging their assertions and holding them to account for their failings.

"The consequences can be enormous: The country went to war in Iraq on false or exaggerated evidence trumpeted by anonymous sources through compliant media. . . .

"During the Libby trial, reporters for The New York Times, NBC News and other major news outlets testified about their willingness to grant Libby anonymity in exchange for listening as he spun stories intended to undermine the credibility of a Bush administration critic. To many Americans, it seemed to confirm that in Washington, big media names are sometimes partners in power with the officials they're supposed to be holding accountable."

Stearns concludes: "Perhaps if more of the nation's elite journalists were less devoted to cultivating the powerful and more interested in exposing their failings, the public would be better served."


Elizabeth Loftus and Richard L. Steinberg write in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required) that "absence of expert-witness testimony may have contributed to an unjust verdict."

Loftus . . . Loftus . . . Sound familiar? Oh yes, she was the victim of what The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig called a Ginsu-like legal performance by Fitzgerald in a pretrial hearing last October.

"Fitzgerald's target in the witness box was Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California at Irvine. For more than an hour of the pretrial hearing, Loftus calmly explained to Judge Reggie B. Walton her three decades of expertise in human memory and witness testimony. Loftus asserted that, after copious scientific research, she has found that many potential jurors do not understand the limits of memory and that Libby should be allowed to call an expert to make that clear to them.

"But when Fitzgerald got his chance to cross-examine Loftus about her findings, he had her stuttering to explain her own writings and backpedaling from her earlier assertions. Citing several of her publications, footnotes and the work of her peers, Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense. . . .

"There were several moments when Loftus was completely caught off guard by Fitzgerald, creating some very awkward silences in the courtroom.

"One of those moments came when Loftus insisted that she had never met Fitzgerald. He then reminded her that he had cross-examined her before, when she was an expert defense witness and he was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in New York."

The Gonzales Eight

Paul Kane and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales agreed yesterday to change the way U.S. attorneys can be replaced, a reversal in administration policy that came after he was browbeaten by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee still angry over the controversial firings of eight federal prosecutors. . . .

"Gonzales also agreed to allow the committee to interview five top-level Justice Department officials as part of an ongoing Democratic-led probe into the firings, senators said after a tense, hour-long meeting in [Sen. Patrick J.] Leahy's office suite.

"The concessions represent a turnaround by the White House and the Justice Department, which have argued for three months that Gonzales must have unfettered power to appoint interim federal prosecutors and have resisted disclosing details about the firings."

Eggen and Kane wrote in Thursday's Post that one of the officials the Democrats intend to question is Monica Goodling, Justice's White House liaison, "to determine the White House role in the firings. Administration officials have said the White House approved them, but did not initiate them."

Just how closely was the White House was involved in these firings remains a mystery. Administration officials have acknowledged that one of the eight, Bud Cummins of Arkansas, was fired to make room for a former Rove aide.

Rove also may figure in at least one of the other firings. As Janet Hook, Richard A. Serrano and Mark Z. Barabak wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday: "It was just three weeks before election day 2006, and Rep. Heather A. Wilson was on the ropes. . . .

"One person in a good position to help Wilson was U.S. Atty. David C. Iglesias, who was investigating Democratic corruption in her home state. A late-breaking indictment of Democratic officials could help Wilson distance herself from sex and lobbying scandals plaguing the GOP in Washington.

"That's why eyebrows raised when it was recently disclosed that, in the heat of her fight for political survival, Wilson called Iglesias to ask about possible indictments. So did [her mentor, Sen. Pete V.] Domenici. . . .

"Democrats see the New Mexico episode as indicative of the lengths Republicans were willing to go to gain political advantage in the crucial midterm elections that ended up changing the balance of power in Congress.

"Wilson's Democratic opponent in November, Patricia Madrid, accused Wilson and Domenici of crossing an ethical line with hardball tactics encouraged by Karl Rove, President Bush's political advisor. Rove attended a fundraiser for Wilson during the campaign and kept close tabs on the race."

The Arkansas Times has a video clip from Rove's aforementioned appearance Thursday in Little Rock, where he was asked about the firings. He was in full spin mode.

Paul Kiel of TPMMuckraker.com transcribed Rove's comments: "What happened in this instance, was there were seven done all at once, and people wanted to play politics with it. . . . And my view this is . . . unfortunately a very big attempt by some in the Congress to make a political stink about it."

Headed for Confrontation

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "Bush administration officials escalated the fight over a new spending package for the Iraq war yesterday, saying for the first time that the president will veto a House Democratic plan because it includes a timetable to start bringing troops home within a year and would undermine military efforts. . . .

"Under the House plan, Congress would institute the same tough benchmarks for the Iraqi government that Bush detailed in a national address in January. The president would have to certify by July 1 that the Iraqi government had made progress toward those goals. If he could not, troops would begin withdrawing, with all troops out of combat by year's end. If Bush could certify progress, he would have until Oct. 1 to certify that all of the benchmarks had been met. If they had not, troops would have to be withdrawn by March."

Here's the transcript of a news briefing yesterday by Snow, counselor Dan Bartlett and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Said Bartlett: "I would just say that's why today's announcement is so disappointing, because it has all the hallmarks of a political compromise and none of the coherence of a military and political strategy that would help you win and accomplish your goals in a very important theater of this war. And that's why we feel so strongly that at this time and this juncture in the mission in Iraq, that we don't need to be handcuffing the generals on the ground."

Bush's Trip

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post from Sao Paulo, Brazil: "Thousands of students, workers and environmentalists protesting President Bush's arrival here Thursday shut down a road in a central business district, and some clashed with helmet-wearing riot police who fired tear gas and beat demonstrators.

"The boisterous rally and the sharp police response presaged a potentially volatile visit for the president, who landed here in the evening for a six-day tour through Latin America, his longest since taking office. Protesters also gathered Thursday in Colombia and Mexico, two later stops on Bush's itinerary, and organizers expect tens of thousands at a demonstration in Buenos Aires on Friday."

Baker is blogging all sorts of interesting observations and tidbits from the trip for washingtonpost.com.

A Central, and Misleading Claim

Monte Reel and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post that a central claim of Bush's trip is that "U.S. concerns about persistent poverty have prompted a doubling of economic aid to Latin America since 2001. . . .

"To make the claim, however, Bush is relying on what some analysts called an accounting gimmick. In fact, they said, U.S. aid to Latin America has remained relatively stable since 2000. And the budget Bush sent to Congress last month proposed cutting aid from $1.6 billion to $1.47 billion, an 8 percent reduction. . . .

"Bush is so intent on calling attention to U.S. aid, telling interviewers and audiences that he has increased it from $860 million to $1.6 billion. 'And yet we don't get much credit for it,' Bush told CNN's Spanish-language network. 'And I want the taxpayers, I want the American people to get credit for their generosity in Central and South America.'

"Analysts note that Bush is using a misleading base line, comparing this year's figure with 2001, a year when Latin American aid was essentially cut in half temporarily to make up for a large military aid package for Colombia and five neighbors. Moreover, Bush never mentions in his comments that he just proposed cutting the figure he cites in next year's budget."

Evil Spirit?

Juan Carlos Llorca writes for the Associated Press from Guatemala City: "Mayan priests will purify a sacred archaeological site to eliminate 'bad spirits' after President Bush visits next week, an official with close ties to the group said Thursday.

"'That a person like [Bush], with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people and their culture,' Juan Tiney, the director of a Mayan nongovernmental organization with close ties to Mayan religious and political leaders, said Thursday."

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