The spin is not holding. Facing two controversies–the Wilson leak (click here if you have somehow managed to miss this story) and the still-MIA WMDs–the White House has been tossing out explanations and rhetoric that cannot withstand scrutiny.
Let’s start with the Wilson leak. In the issue coming out October 6, Newsweek will be reporting that after Bob Novak published a July 14 column containing the leak attributed to “senior adminsitration officials” that identified former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as an undercover CIA operative, White House officials were touting the Novak story, according to NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell. Apparently, these officials were encouraging reporters to recycle or pursue the story about Wilson’s wife. The newsmagazine also notes that, according to a source close to Wilson, shortly after the leak occurred Bush’s senior aide Karl Rove told Hardball host Chris Matthews that Wilson’s wife was “fair game.” Matthews told Newsweek that he would not discuss off-the-record conversations. (He told me the same weeks ago when I made a similar inquiry about this chat with Rove.) An anonymous source described as familiar with the exchange–presumably Rove or someone designated to speak for him–maintained that Rove had only said to Matthews it was reasonable to discuss whether Wilson’s wife had been involved in his mission to Niger. (In February 2002, Wilson had been asked by the CIA to visit Niger to check out allegations Iraq had been shopping for uranium there; he did so and reported back that the charge was probably untrue. In July, he publicly challenged the White House’s use of this claim and earned the administration’s wrath.)
These disclosures do not reveal who were the original leakers. (The Justice Department, at the CIA’s request, started out investigating the White House; it has widened its probe to include the State Department and the Defense Department.) But these new details are significant and undercut the White House line on the leak. At a White House press briefing, Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, repeatedly said that Bush and his White House took no action after the Novak column was published on July 14 because the leak was attributed only to anonymous sources. “Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?” McClellan remarked.
He was arguing that a serious leak attributed to anonymous sources was still not serious enough to cause the president to ask, what the hell happened? And he made it seem as if the White House just ignored the matter. Not so. Mitchell’s remark and even the Rove-friendly account of the Rove-Matthews conversation are evidence the White House tried to further the Plame story–that is, to exploit the leak for political gain. Rather than respond by trying to determine the source of a leak that possibly violated federal law and perhaps undermined national security ( The Washington Post reported that the leak also blew the cover of a CIA front company, “potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure”), White House officials sought to take advantage of it. Spin that, McClellan.