Is it Karl Rove?

This past weekend, a pundit and a journalist each reported that Rove, Bush’s uber-strategist (and now, officially, the deputy White House chief of staff), was a source for Time magazine’s Matt Cooper, who has resisted cooperating with a court order to reveal his sources to Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the Bush administration leak that revealed undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. (Plame, a.k.a Valerie Wilson, is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a Bush administration critic). Last week, after the Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal from Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller (who also was subpoenaed by Fitzgerald for her sources), Time magazine decided to cooperate with Fitzgerald and turn over Cooper’s notes and emails. (Cooper said he disagreed with–but understood–his employer’s decision; Miller and the Times vowed to continue resisting.) Appearing on The McLaughlin Group–which was taped on Friday–commentator Lawrence O’Donnell said that the documents handed over byTime to Fitzgerald would reveal that Rove had been Cooper’s source. The next day, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek posted a piece that reported,

The e- mails surrendered by Time Inc., which are largely between Cooper and his editors, show that one of Cooper’s sources was White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, according to two lawyers who asked not to be identified because they are representing witnesses sympathetic to the White House. Cooper and a Time spokeswoman declined to comment. But in an interview with NEWSWEEK, Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, confirmed that Rove had been interviewed by Cooper for the article.

O’Donnell’s comment and Isikoff’s report set off a wave of reaction. I received numerous emails proclaiming “Rove is it, he’s the [deleted] who revealed Plame’s identity.” But a careful reading of the available facts leads to this unsatisfying conclusion: not so fast.

The issue at hand is the identity of who told conservative columnist Robert Novak that Plame was an undercover CIA official working on counterproliferation (that is, anti-WMD) matters. On July 14, 2003, Novak published a piece that was essentially a conveyor belt for White House criticism of Joseph Wilson. A week earlier, Wilson had written a much-noticed op-ed piece in The New York Times that argued that George W. Bush had misled the nation in his January 2003 State of the Union speech by claiming that Iraq had been shopping in Africa for uranium to be used in a nuclear weapons program. In his article, Wilson revealed for the first time that he had been dispatched to Niger in February 2002 to investigate rumors of such Iraqi activity and had reported back that it was highly unlikely that Iraq was procuring weapons-related uranium there. Wilson’s article–which followed his previous criticism of the administration for launching the war in Iraq–placed him in the line of fire. Republican and conservative allies of the White House blasted away. In the course of this attack, Novak wrote the piece that outed Wilson’s wife and suggested that Wilson’s trip to Niger had been a nepotistic junket of some sort.

Novak seemed to attribute his disclosure about Plame (which destroyed her career and perhaps threatened anti-WMD operations) to two unnamed “senior administration officials.” (I use the word “seemed” because the attribution was technically indirect, though it appears clear these were Novak’s sources.) Two days after Novak’s column was published, I became the first journalist to write that these two Bush administration sources might have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection act of 1982, which makes it illegal for a government official (not a reporter) to reveal the identity of an undercover intelligence official. (It would not be until September 2003 that the CIA would ask the Justice Department to investigate this leak and an official inquiry would begin. ) Then on July 17, 2003, Time posted a piece by Matthew Cooper, Massimo Calabresi and John Dickerson headlined “A War on Wilson?” The article noted,

And some government officials have noted to TIME in interviews, (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband’s being dispatched [to] Niger to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein’s government had sought to purchase large quantities of uranium ore, sometimes referred to as yellow cake, which is used to build nuclear devices.

This passage raises several obvious questions. Who told Time about Plame? Were these “government officials” the same as Novak’s “two senior administration officials”? And when did these government officials tell Time about Plame? Presumably it was before Novak’s column appeared, though these two sentences don’t say that outright.

Which brings us to Rove.

His name has emerged in this scandal before. In the summer of 2003, Joseph Wilson appeared at a public event in Seattle and was asked about the investigation of the Plame leak. Wilson replied, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs?” Wilson subsequently conceded that he had no basis for accusing Rove of leaking his wife’s CIA identity. But to explain his wish to see Rove in prison, he pointed to a news report that maintained that Rove had told Hardball‘s Chris Matthews after the leak that Wilson’s wife was “fair game.” On October 10, 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked if Rove and two other White House aides had ever discussed Valerie Plame with reporters. McClellan said he had spoken to Rove and the others and that they had “assured me they were not involved in this.”

******

Don’t forget about DAVID CORN’s BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the Fourth of July, McCain’s disingenuous targetting, and Limbaugh’s gal pal.

*******

So does the recent revelation place Rove in jeopardy?

Luskin, Rove’s lawyer, told Isikoff that Rove spoke to Cooper three or four days before the Novak column appeared but that Rove “never knowingly disclosed classified information” and that “he did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.” He also noted that Rove had appeared before Fitzgerald’s grand jury and had signed a waiver that would permit reporters to set aside any confidentiality agreement they had with him and testify about what Rove had told them.

If Luskin is telling the truth, Rove has nothing to fear. But defense lawyers have been known to spin the facts. The contents of Cooper’s emails and notes might support or challenge Luskin’s account. They might be inconclusive. (You should see my notes sometimes.) That Rove, a top White House aide, spoke to Cooper, who was covering the White House for a major newsmagazine, during this white-hot episode would not be unusual. And the piece Cooper co-wrote covers far more ground than Plame’s post at the CIA (which accounted for only two sentences). It is certainly conceivable that Rove was tossing other anti-Wilson information at Cooper (and others) at this point. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, also talked to Time for this article, and he was quoted by name saying that Cheney had been interested in the Niger allegation but didn’t know about Wilson’s trip to Niger. (After Libby gave permission to Cooper to tell Fitzgerald about their conversations, Cooper did so.)

Rove talking to Cooper days before his piece–and Novak’s–was written is an intriguing lead for Fitzgerald. But this does not solve the mystery. Before anyone can expect to see Rove frog-marching, Fitzgerald will have to determine what was said in these conversations. (Perhaps Fitzgerald will continue to pursue Cooper on this point.) [UPDATE: On Tueday, Fitzgerald did just that. He demanded that Cooper testify before his grand jury despite Time‘s decision to surrender Cooper’s emails and notes to Fitzgerald.]

But all the hubbub stirred by the disclosure that Rove was a source for Cooper raises other interesting questions.

* Both the Novak column and the Time piece refer to a plural number of sources for the Plame information. Novak cited “two”; Time referred to “officials.” Apparently Rove–or whoever–did not act alone. Shouldn’t Fitzgerald be seeking more than one name from Time, Cooper, and the coauthors? Are there other names in the material turned over by Time? Or must Fitzgerald continue his pursuit of Time?

* The Time magazine article, as I’ve noted, had three co-authors. Why no subpoenas for Cooper’s co-writers? Does this suggest that Fitzgerald chased after Cooper because he had information in addition to the article–such as emails, phone logs, etc.–from suspects?

* Rove’s lawyer stated that Rove did not “knowingly” disclose classified information. Does this mean he “unknowingly” revealed such information? The distinction is important because the Intelligence Identities Protection Act essentially says that for a crime to have been committed the offender must have realized that he or she was disclosing top-secret information. (Otherwise someone could be prosecuted for making an honest mistake.) True, Rove’s mouthpiece also said that Rove “did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.” But his use of the word “knowingly” can be read by those wishing to see Rove frog-marching as the start of a criminal defense strategy.

It is not too difficult to envision such a defense being concocted should any White House official come to be officially accused. The law only covers government officials with “authorized access to classified information” and who “intentionally” disclose information revealing the identity of “a covert agent…that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal.” Consider this scenario. Rove–let’s just use him as an example–hears someone at a meeting say, “Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, does counterproliferation work at the CIA and we hear she was involved in sending him to Niger.” Then he tells this information to Novak, not realizing that Plame is officially undercover (after all, not every CIA officials work undercover). He could then argue that he did not break the law. (In October 2003, I wrote a piece that reported that a CIA colleague of Plame was working at the National Security Council at the time of the Plame leak. This person might have told White House aides about Plame’s connection to Wilson’s Niger trip. I suggested that Fitzgerald ought to make sure to interview this possible witness. I did not name the person, who was still working undercover. Since then, I have seen no reference to this person in any news accounts.)

Fitzgerald has a difficult mission. He has to determine (a) who in the administration spoke to Novak and Time–and perhaps other media outfits, like The New York Times–about Wilson, (b) what precisely was said in these conversations, and (c) whether the get-Wilson leakers knew they were slipping classified information to the journalists.

The news about Rove might be of use to Fitzgerald, though I suspect he already knew about Rove and Cooper. And, of course, unless the notes say something like, K.R.: JW’s wife–Valerie Plame–works undercover at CIA and this is TOP SECRET, the material turned over by Time may not make the case. Optimistic Bush-bashers can hope that Fitzgerald is also investigating perjury or obstruction of justice violations–which would probably be easier to prove. If White House Aide X testified before the grand jury that s/he did not speak to Reporter Y and notes or emails show otherwise, Fitzgerald could have an easy indictment.

But this is all speculation. And that is mostly what Plame-leak-watchers have had to work with from the start. Fitzgerald’s investigation has been remarkably low on leaks. But the recent Rove revelations–whether they aid Fitzgerald or not–have served a valuable purpose. They have focused attention on the original sin: the leak. Ever since Fitzgerald started to go after reporters other than Novak (who apparently has cooperated in some fashion with Fitzgerald for he was not subpoenaed by the prosecutor), this case has been discussed primarily as a media-and-the-law matter. Can reporters shield their sources? What will happen to journalism if Fitzgerald forces Time and The New York Times to give up their sources or if Cooper or Miller have to go to jail to protect these sources?

Those are indeed damn important questions. But the news about Rove has shifted the discussion back to the leak itself and the question, whodunit? It’s been two years since the leak occurred. In that time, Bush has expressed little outrage about this despicable act. His White House took no steps of its own to determine who leaked the Plame information. At one point, Bush practically joked that finding the leaker would be rather hard. Even if the leak, for reasons I noted above, does not meet the threshold for a prosecution, it still was a thuggish act and a firing offense. Does Bush want on his staff people who out CIA officials (who are working to protect the nation from the WMD threat) in order to score political points? If Fitzgerald, at the end of the day, says he does not have enough evidence to indict anyone, will Bush take actions of his own to find and boot the leakers? He has given no indication he feels so compelled. On Capitol Hill, the House and Senate intelligence committees, controlled by Republicans, never mounted investigations of their own. And, by the way, Fitzgerald, should he fail to bring indictments, has no obligation at the end of his inquiry to produce a public report that explains what he did and did not uncover.

Rove may be in trouble. Or this could be a false alert. But this did-Rove-do-it bubble is a useful reminder. Two years ago, senior Bush administration officials revealed classified information, undid the career of a national security official, and endangered ongoing anti-WMD programs in order to pursue a political vendetta against a critic, and to date there has been no accountability.

*******************

IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, “This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research…. [I]t does present a serious case for the president’s partisans to answer…. Readers can hardly avoid drawing…troubling conclusions from Corn’s painstaking indictment.” The Los Angeles Times says, “David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case.” The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations…. Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, “I’d like to tell you I’ve read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that’d be a lie.”

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.