White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, July 27, 2005; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin , who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org . You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk. It's been almost all Karl Rove all the time since we last talked. Rove was already an inordinately fascinating figure for us White House watchers but now -- what a plot twist! And there's inevitably more to come.

So come join in the conversation.


Madison, Ala.: Why do you think a deluge of leaks started only a few weeks ago, even though the investigation has been going on for nearly 2 years and some of the inconsistencies must have been evident before Cooper testified?

Dan Froomkin: The irony that the story of the investigation into a leak is now being fueled almost exclusively by more leaks is not lost on me. I do wish that more of the central figures would do like Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, and speak out publicly about their testimony and their experience with the grand jury. And remember: They are free to do so. This "Fitzgerald asked us not to talk" thing doesn't carry a lot of weight with me -- certainly not at this point, which we assume is close to the end of his investigation. It certainly carries no legal obligation. And no legal jeopardy, unless the jeopardy already exists.

But there are some good things that have come of this leakfest. One is that, unless we're all being horribly misled, we do know a lot more about this case than we did before the leaking began in earnest. (And that of course is spawning even more leaks, to answer your specific question. Once it starts, it doesn't tend to stop.)

And two, there's been a continued evolution of how these leakers are described, which I think is a very good thing. Sure, it's not rocket science to figure out that most political leakers are leaking BECAUSE IT'S IN THEIR INTEREST, rather than out of some sense of obligation to the public weal. But I like that reporters are more often explicitly cluing readers in to the leakers' motivation. So for instance if someone in Rove's camp is leaking and refuses to be identified as being in Rove's camp, at least we're identifying them as someone who is leaking because they tend to think that the information they are leaking exculpates Rove. That sort of thing.

The bad news: The new identification of people "who have been briefed on the testimony." What the heck does that mean? It sounds to me crafted in a way that might be seen as encompassing Fitzgerald and his team -- but I have a very hard time believing that they are violating grand jury secrecy rules. Because it is in fact illegal for THEM to discuss grand jury testimony.


Dan Froomkin: Note to my readers. Today's column has not yet been published due to technical difficulties. I'll let you know when it's up.

Sneak peak: My headline is "Deflecting the Blame," and it's my attempt to put today's fascinating Washington Post story by Walter Pincus and Jim VandeHei in a greater context.

I write: "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."

More soon, I hope!


Columbia, S.C.: As you reporters say--this story seems to "have legs". How are the legs holding out? Do you have any sense that the story is waning or gaining momentum? I realize we're in a lull at the moment--but I'd appreciate any comments you have on the course of the story and where we are today as far as media interest.

Dan Froomkin: I can't predict how this story will go. There's only one person in Washington who's really excellent at predicting how things will play in the press, and since he's the subject of this one, I might tend to question even his prediction.

That said, reporters and editors are not the least bit sated.

See, for instance, two editorials today, from the

Los Angeles Times

and the

Boston Globe


The Times editorial board, for instance, writes: "Some folks say that as we learn more, the scandal is getting smaller, not larger....

"We don't buy it."


Guilford, Conn.: Dan. Thanks so much for your column--it's a daily requirement for me.

With the Bloomberg release (7/22/05) that there are discrepancies between the testimonies of both Rove and Libby and the reporters about who told whom that Plame was undercover(Rove said Novak did it, Novak said Rove did it, Libby says Russert did it, Russert said Libby did it), what are the chances that we are going to see an indictment of people within the White House? If either of these guys are indicted, do you think Bush will keep them on?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

I won't speculate about where the investigation is going.

Bush as you know has said that if someone committed a crime, they will not be employed by the White House. Reporters tried to get spokesman Scott McClellan to say whether Bush would wait for a conviction, or whether indictment would suffice, but he wouldn't say.

I found that incredible -- particularly because I think the answer is obvious. Bush does not have enough political capital to keep someone who has been indicted by a federal grand jury on his staff.

(Yes, yes, I know, deputy national security adviser Elliot Abrams was not only indicted but convicted for Iran-Contra. But he was also pardoned.)


Wilton, Conn.: Dan -- Today Attorney General Gonzales appeared to go out of his way to suggest that John Roberts has every right to vote against Roe v. Wade if/when there is a relevant case before the Supreme Court. Sounds very much like Bush taunting the Iraqi insurgents to "Bring 'em on." Why on Earth would he go out of his way to make such a statement at such a sensitive time? Is this just another in an ever-lengthening line of hubris-saturated actions by the administration...or is there something else going on?

Dan Froomkin: This is sheer speculation, but is it possible that it's not intentional -- at least not on the White House's part? Is it possible that Gonzales, now running his own Cabinet agency, is no longer hewing to the White House talking points? His long history with Bush would suggest that is not the case. And that is precisely why he was sent out to take over Justice. But some departments -- and State is one of them -- tend to embolden their leaders.


Atlanta, Ga.: Dan: This White House often follows the playbook of the Reagan White House. Could the history of the Reagan White House's handling of the "Iran/Contra scandal" offer observers of the "Rove/Plame scandal" any insight into what to expect from this Bush White House? Will there be any sacrificial lambs to take the hit for their superiors? Will the President ever go on national television to address the nation about the scandal? Will there be any presidential pardons?

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting thought. It would certainly be worth reviewing Iran/Contra, if nothing else then just for kicks.

And I grant you that the Bush White House follows PARTS of the Reagan playbook. For instance, the meticulously stage-managed public events. But I think the Bush people are WAY more loyal to their own than the Reagan people were. I don't see any sacrificial lambs in the future unless things get really, really, really bad.

Anyway, what would Bush's version of "my heart still tells me we didn't trade arms for hostages, but the facts show otherwise" be? I trusted [insert lamb's name here] and I still do, in my heart?


Laurel, Md.: The speculation that Rove is in a lot of hot water is based on the assumption that his lawyer is outright lying when he says Rove is "not a target" of the investigation.

Sure, lawyers can lie, but what good what it do Rove, his client? If we have a clear cut case of perjury committed by Rove, what good does it do him or Bush to downplay the charges and continue work as usual?

Sure, that's no proof of Rove's innocence, but I find it hard to believe the investigation's about Rove until we learn more.

Dan Froomkin: Two thoughts. One is that Luskin has some clear credibility issues. Before it became clear that it was Rove who Cooper was protecting, he tried to wave reporters off that story. He also implied that Rove didn't know Plame's name when he talked to Cooper -- but of course he did, having been told it by Novak a few days prior.

So you never know.

But that said, not being a "target" is not all it's cracked up to be. As I wrote in my

July 13

column, you don't want to be a "subject" either.

Subjects, unlike ordinary witnesses, face possible indictment. So, for instance, targets and subjects get their rights read to them before they testify before grand juries.


Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi, Dan. Go back if you would to the summer of 2003, after Wilson had published his Op-Ed and then-Security Adviser Rice among others had gone on the record that the famous "16 words" about Iraqi purchases of uranium from Africa should not have been in the President's 2003 State of the Union speech.

What happens if the White House just leaves it at that? It just seems to me that Bush's people have taken a story that was more than half-dead, kept it going longer, and made it a lot worse. Am I missing something?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's easy to say in retrospect.

But at the time, the White House couldn't know which if any of these efforts to place the blame for the false WMD claims squarely on the White House might actually capture the imagination and attention of the press and the public.

So it tried to aggressively smother every one.

Yes, in retrospect, it appears to have been overkill.


Bush's version of Reagan: The President would say " I thought he was a strong man with a good heart but now I realize he was just a good man with a strong heart".

Dan Froomkin: Oh my. That's beautiful. A bit inscrutable, but really lovely.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Any chance that you are either underestimating Bush's "political capital", or overestimating the outrage potential for the American people, circa 2005? I can easily see Bush keeping Rove on board after a perjury or obstruction of justice indictment, with the fallout being minimal.

As you say, Elliot Abrams, a convicted and pardoned felon, in on the White House staff, and Ollie North helped lead a prayer out of the White House on "National Prayer Day". Your thoughts

Dan Froomkin: I suppose it's possible. But I look at those approval ratings in the low 40's, and I just don't think so.


Raleigh, N.C.: I have a question about the article today saying that Fitzgerald is widening the probe to look more broadly at the "16 words" and maybe even the whole Bush push for the Iraq war. My question is, where's the crime? Even -if- he can prove the Bush White House knowingly lied to the American people and to Congress to get us into war, so what? Is he gonna charge the whole lot of them with treason? Of course not. So why is he going off into this seemingly political tangent? Is there a crime, or is he possibly a Starr-like prosecutor run amok?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. And one that I worry we won't really know how to answer until Fitzgerald wraps up and goes public.

That said, if, say, Bush knowingly lied to Congress, wouldn't you want to know? Would you consider exposing that an abuse of a prosecutor's power? (Maybe.)


Anonymous: I find it almost impossible to believe that Rove and Libby went forward in their attempts to neutralize the credibility of Joseph Wilson IV without having some sort of pow-wow with the President and VP. You seem to be one of the few reporters to have even broached the subject. Why is that? Is it respect for the office? Surely Bush is capable of playing political hardball, yet he appears to have intimidated the press into not going there. Your opinion?

Dan Froomkin: Well, there are two issues there. One is did Bush or Cheney know beforehand, and the other is what were they told afterwards. It's that second issue that I raised in Monday's column . I'm not sure why more journalists aren't asking about that publicly.

The beforehand part, to be honest, I hadn't even really thought about before. My sense is that Bush doesn't get anywhere close to that level of detail -- but Cheney might.


Dan Froomkin: Hey, my column is now up! You can read it here .

And I had forgotten: I changed the headline from "Deflecting the Blame" to "Deflecting Responsibility" because

Howie Kurtz

's blog today, about Jane Fonda, was headlined "The Blame Jane Game" and I figured that was enough blame to go around.


Minneapolis, Minn.: I'm looking forward to your column. One of the important parts of The Post story today is that in 2003 the White House attacked not only Wilson but also the CIA, to get it to take the blame for the claims about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa in the State of the Union. The story goes on.

"As part of this effort, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley spoke with Tenet during the week about clearing up CIA responsibility for the 16 words, even though both knew the agency did not think Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, according to a person familiar with the conversation."

Just to be clear, is the idea that Hadley, acting as part of the White House, demanded that Tenet publicly place the blame for the inclusion of the 16 words in the SOTU on the CIA? Also, why on earth would Tenet agree?

Dan Froomkin: That story's insights into the turf war between the White House and the CIA are indeed fascinating.

The cynical answer to your question would be:

The Medal of Freedom


But I don't have an easy answer, really. The relationship between the CIA and the White House, and the White House's role in exaggerating and distorting intelligence in the run-up to war remain a largely unexplored mystery.


Indianapolis, Ind.: So, do you always come up with your own headlines? One that should go into the Headlines Hall Of Fame "The Empire Strikes Bush"

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. That one was actually my wife's work.


Massillon, Ohio: Hi Dan - I look forward to your columns and your chats. I think your voice is one of the most honest in the MSM.

A question - I am concerned that Pat Roberts wants to investigate Fitzgerald's investigation perhaps to offer immunity to the key players, i.e. Rove, Libby, etc. Do you think this is a possibility?

Dan Froomkin: I find it highly unlikely.


Austin, Tex.: Dan, Awesome column! Thanks!

Today, Secretary Rumsfeld is in Iraq talking up the speedy withdrawal of our troops. Is this just one more example of the administration's disconnect from reality OR are we seeing a policy shift towards a modified version of "cut and run"?

Dan Froomkin: It's too early to say. For instance, you could read this as simply new packaging for the same position -- that we'll leave as soon as we can.

Then again, it is possible that the administration is starting to realize that we're not going to leave Iraq in great shape no matter what -- so we might as well leave sooner than later.


Texas: Dan - The "Rove/Plame" story is being driven by leaks (not events like indictments, arrests, etc.) Is it possible that the "Rove/Plame" story is a red herring conceived and deployed to take the heat off of Bush's Supreme Court nominee?

Dan Froomkin: That was what the National Review's Byron York suggested the other day. (See the second to last item of Monday's column .

There are people out there who truly ascribe the most amazingly complicated motivations to everyone in the White House. I personally think they're awfully clever people, but not nearly as complicated as some of you would have them.

That said, I think that even without Rove, given who Roberts is, what we were bound to see was a gradual amassing of a paper trail. That's happening. And I predict some very interesting, lively debates about some very important issues.

We CAN cover two things at once, you know.


Sterling, Va.: In today's column you refer to the Susan Page in USA Today and the fact that though a majority of the populace now believe Bush deliberately misled us into the war they still think it may have been worth it.

Holy Moly!

Dan Froomkin: A Washington Post poll found almost exactly the same thing last month. Here's the Richard Morin/Dan Balz story. They wrote: "For the first time, a narrow majority -- 52 percent -- said the administration deliberately misled the public before the war, a nine-point increase in three months. Forty-eight percent said the administration told the public what it believed to be true at the time." But it was in their tenth paragraph.

The fact that this has never been a banner headline in any newspaper is possibly one of those things that we will look back at someday with a combination of wonder and regret.

That said, if you read that story -- or


's, you'll see lots of hard to comprehend apparent contradictions.


Des Moines, Iowa: It's quarter past the hour, and you've only answered 3 questions. Can't you type any faster? Your people are hanging breathlessly on every word!!!

Dan Froomkin: My producer tells me you should hit your "refresh" button. But of course if you're reading this, you already know that I have already answered several more.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hello. I have begun reading excerpts from your daily briefing to my husband-- he is an army major who served in Iraq. The question posed by the Air America reporter drew and especially emphatic comment from him. I asked if he believed it was treason to out Valerie Plame. He said, "Absolutely. This wartime." Any follow up likely on that question?

Dan Froomkin: Treason is a very, very harsh word. I'm not sure the MSM will throw it about much. But your point (his point) is noted.


Dale City, Va.: Wasn't the Roberts nomination announced sooner than the White House wanted with hopes of diverting attention from Rove's problems? That seemed to be the consensus when the debate was on about when to expect an announcement, that it was being moved up to throw water on all the leak stories.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, that much I am willing to believe. What I'm not willing to believe that they moved it up to take advantage of the Rove controversy, hoping no one would pay attention.


Dallas, Tex.: When you quoted the Gallup report that "Only about half of Americans are following the controversy closely," isn't that about the same amount that voted?

Dan Froomkin: Good point. Think it's the same half?


Ithaca, N.Y.: Based on today's Walter Pincus article, do you think it is possible that Fitzgerald is investigating whether the administration knowingly cited faulty intelligence during Congressional hearings for authorization to wage war in Iraq? In other words, is Plamegate turning Warjustificationgate?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, I doubt it, really. But yes, it's possible.


Springfield, Mass.: Hi Dan

I really like your piece each day; it is my best source of news and amusement.

Now I am really glad that you have being following the Plame story since as long as I can remember reading you column. Any chance that you would revisit article you mentioned from last October that covered what would happen in a Bush second term? In particular the part were different scandals would burble up during the second term? I would be curious to see how much has come true. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your kind words. Sounds like the perfect job for an intern. But I don't have an intern!


Minneapolis, Minn. One other comment, with regard to the identification of leakers in stories. The blog talkleft.com has some useful tips on identifying where leakers are coming from on the basis of how they are described, given the laws about access to and revelations about grand jury testimony. As I understand it, if a source is described as "someone who has been briefed on the testimony," the chances are that person has not seen the transcripts, at this stage only available to Fitzgerald's current and former people, who are barred by law from talking about the proceedings. Defense lawyers, not present in the room when their clients testify before the grand jury, are typically briefed on it afterwards by them, and are free to talk about it. In other words, it's probably one of them or someone on their side.

Here's the link: TalkLeft.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm not endorsing that, just passing it along.


Des Moines, Iowa: Comment: L'Affair Plame has not reached critical mass here in the Midwest. I asked 6 college-educated colleagues yesterday what they thought of the whole story. Three didn't know who Valerie Plame is. (Maybe that says more about the DM Register than my colleagues.)

Question: Tell us more about this grand jury. Is there actually a group of Average Joes and Janes that are meeting on a day-to-day basis to hear testimony, etc? If so, are they sequestered in any way? Seems like at least one or two of them could be "persuaded" into giving regular status reports to an enterprising journalist like yourself.

Just a thought.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the information. Good to know.

The grand jury is made up of ordinary folks who are not being sequestered -- but it is actually a federal crime for them to divulge anything they hear in the grand jury room.

That said, it has been known to happen.


Fort Myers, Fla.: Hello Mr. Froomkin:

I'm curious about a neglected aspect of Karl Rove's and Lewis Libby's involvement in the "Plame Game" story.

Nearly everyone in the punditocracy seems hell-bent on focusing on the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 as the potential basis for a prosecution of White House officials.

I've seen precious little written or said in the MainStream Media (MSM) about the Espionage Act of 1917, and it would seem that this law was plainly violated by Rove AND Libby (and others who Matt Cooper has yet to identify). In fact, if George Tenet were asked to weigh in, he might call the case a "slam dunk," (only this time he'd be correct).

Why so little discussion about this in the MSM so far, and will we ever see more written about this law and its application to this White House?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. I've seen some quite thoughtful blog posts to that effect.


Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.: I have read reports that George Tenet's book will place most of the blame for 9/11 squarely on the shoulders of Dr. Rice. Do you have any information about this?

Dan Froomkin: I know nothing about Tenet's book. But -- and this point was largely overlooked during Bush's first term -- it is precisely the national security adviser's job to make absolutely sure that the president is making decisions based on accurate intelligence. So by that standard, she is culpable, ex officio .


Washington, D.C.: Dan, your column and Q&A sessions make my day.

Question on the Plame-Rove situation (surprise!): Given that the CIA, the DOJ, and the special prosecutor have all treated this as if Plame indeed had her cover blown, how can Republican members of Congress and right-wing jabberers say with a straight face that she wasn't 'really' under cover?

And why do the press let them get away with it so frequently?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Throwing up chaff to confuse the issue, and complaining about press coverage that doesn't "give both sides" about everything, including facts, are two of the Republican attack machine's chief tactics.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, I just wanted to say how much I love your column (though I miss Bubble Watch) I also wanted you to know that it's not only Gene Weingarten who has virtual panty throwing 20-something female fans (OK, so I'm in my early thirties). Enjoy.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, dear.


And on that note, I must be going. See you again in two weeks here, and very weekday afternoon on the home page.


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