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Rove Scandal: Cover Story Slippage | The Nation

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 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Rove Scandal: Cover Story Slippage

Another part of the save-Rove cover story is not holding.

Once the Plame/CIA leak became big (mainstream-media) news in September 2003--when word hit that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak, which had appeared in a Bob Novak column two months earlier--friends of the White House, including Novak, started saying that Valerie Wilson wasn't really under cover at the CIA and, thus, the disclosure of her employment at the CIA wasn't worth a federal case (or investigation). They claimed that no big wrong had occurred, and this argument also conveniently offered any leaker a legal defense. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a government official can only be prosecuted for disclosing information identifying a "covert agent" whose cover the United States government was taking steps to protect. White House allies asserted that while Valerie Wilson may have technically been a clandestine CIA official, in practice she wasn't. So all this bother over the leak was much ado about nothing.

Novak, for example, downplayed Valerie Wilson's covert status in an October 1, 2003 column, in which he vaguely described how he had originally learned of her connection to the CIA. He noted that after a senior administration official told him that Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, he called the CIA:

At the CIA, the official designated to talk to me denied that Wilson's wife had inspired his selection but said she was delegated to request his help. He asked me not to use her name, saying she probably never again will be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause "difficulties" if she travels abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson's wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name. I used it in the sixth paragraph of my column because it looked like the missing explanation of an otherwise incredible choice by the CIA for its mission.

Bush-backers have cited this paragraph to argue that the CIA didn't do much to protect Valerie Wilson's cover. I've heard GOP lawyer Victoria Toensing, who helped draft the Intelligence Identities Act, claim that Novak's exchange with the CIA is proof that the CIA was not taking serious measures to preserve Wilson's cover--which means the law she helped concoct does not apply in the case of this leak.

Should Novak be taken at his word on this point? Until now, the public only knew of his side of his conversation with the CIA. But The Washington Post published a piece on Wednesday that provides the CIA's version of this exchange. And it is significantly different from Novak's account. The paper reports,

[Bill] Harlow, the former CIA spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that he testified last year before a grand jury about conversations he had with 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 [to Niger taken by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson] and that if he did write about it, her name should not be revealed.

Harlow said that after Novak's call, he checked Plame's status and confirmed that she was an undercover operative. He said he called Novak back to repeat that the story Novak had related to him was wrong and that Plame's name should not be used. But he did not tell Novak directly that she was undercover because that was classified.

So how many contradictions can you find? Novak indicated he had one substantive conversation with a CIA official about Valerie Wilson and he received no clear signal that revealing her name would cause any significant trouble. Harlow said there were two conversations and that in each one he warned Novak about using her name. (Harlow also said he told Novak that Valerie Wilson had not authorized her husband's trip. Remember, several Rove defenders have maintained that when Rove spoke to Time's Matt Cooper--and told Cooper that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had authorized his trip to Niger--he was merely trying to make sure that Cooper published an accurate account of what happened. Yet the CIA says she did not authorize this trip. Rove was feeding Cooper misleading information.)

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Rove and the Plame/CIA leak, Bill Frist's latest bone-headed move, and Oliver Stone.

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Is Harlow telling the truth? Who, besides Novak and him, can know? But I do know that when I spoke to Harlow a year later and asked about the identity of another covert officer, Harlow would not confirm the person's covert status. How could he? That would be sharing classified information with a reporter. When Novak called, Harlow was in no position to say, "Hey, Bob, you're right, and she's an undercover officer. So please don't reveal her name." All he could have done was to toss out a no-comment (which Harlow was good at doing) or offer a vague warning.

Harlow's account--in which he tried to protect Valerie Wilson from the quick-to-out-her columnist--is as self-serving as Novak's. But it rings true. Am I saying this because of my own bias? Perhaps. But the key thing is that Novak's defense--the CIA didn't give me a strong enough signal--is now in dispute. No one can use Novak's October 1, 2003, column as evidence that Valerie Wilson was not truly a "covert agent."

In that article, Novak also declared that Valerie Wilson's position at the CIA was an open secret throughout the nation's capital. His source for this? Journalist-turned-Republican-operative Clifford May. Novak wrote:

How big a secret was it? It was well known around Washington that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Republican activist Clifford May wrote Monday, in National Review Online, that he had been told of her identity by a non-government source before my column appeared and that it was common knowledge.

Indeed, May had written:

On July 14, Robert Novak wrote a column in the Post and other newspapers naming Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative.

That wasn't news to me. I had been told that--but not by anyone working in the White House. Rather, I learned it from someone who formerly worked in the government and he mentioned it in an offhanded manner, leading me to infer it was something that insiders were well aware of.

Appearing on Fox News Channel, May amplified this assertion:

"I knew this, and a lot of other people knew it...So I think it may be something of an open secret."

"Insiders" were well aware of Valerie Wilson's job at the CIA? "A lot of other people" knew it, too? In the time since May boasted of his access to this "inside" information, what other evidence has emerged that Valerie Wilson's CIA identity was widely know to "insiders" (whatever that means)? I'll answer that rhetorical question: none. Her neighbors have been quoted saying they did not realize she was a CIA employee. (Maybe these neighbors are not "insiders.") And in recent weeks, attorneys for Karl Rove and Scooter Libby have put out the story that neither one of them knew her name. So these "insiders" were not truly in the know. (Oddly--but, then again, perhaps not--May recently tried to turn tables and argue that I am the one who actually outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA officer. First, he said everyone knew. Now he says only I did. It's hard to keep up.)

Novak and May's claim that Valerie Wilson's CIA position was an open secret known throughout Washington has not held up. Novak's claim that the CIA did not wave him off now stands contested. Will either one of them run a correction?

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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.

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