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.
This week, Bob Woodward didn't break a story. He entered the story. On Wednesday, The Washington Post, Woodward's home base, disclosed that two days earlier the nation's most prominent reporter had given a sworn deposition to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. According to a statement issued by Woodward, the week after Fitzgerald indicted Scooter Libby, Fitzgerald asked Woodward to come in for a chat--under oath. What had happened was that a senior administration official had recently revealed to Fitzgerald that in mid-June 2003--a month before conservative columnist Bob Novak published the administration leak that outed Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA official--this Bush official had told Woodward that Valerie Wilson worked for the CIA as a WMD analyst. (The official apparently has not permitted Woodward to disclose his or her name publicly.) This revelation changes the chronology of the leak case. Previously, Libby's June 23, 2003 conversation with New York Times reporter Judith Miller was the first known instance of a Bush administration official telling a reporter about former ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA. Now, it turns out, another top administration figure shared this classified information with Woodward a week or so earlier.
Yet another round of Plamegate guessing has exploded. Who was Woodward's source? Was this person Novak's original source? (As of now, only the second of Novak's two sources--Karl Rove--has been fingered.) Why did Woodward sit on this information and not even tell the editor of his paper about this conversation until late last month? (Woodward has apologized to Post executive editor Len Downie Jr.) Did Woodward's possession of this inside information prompt him to criticize the leak investigation repeatedly on talk shows? Was he putting down Fitzgerald to protect or curry favor with one of his insider sources? Will this have any impact on the case against Libby?
As for the big who-is-it question, no sooner had the speculating begun that several obvious suspects denied being Woodward's source. An unnamed administration official quickly told The New York Times that neither Bush, White House chief of staff Andrew Card Jr, nor White House aide Dan Bartlett had spilled this secret to Woodward. Spokespeople for Colin Powell, former CIA chief George Tenet and former CIA director John McLaughlin did the same. (By the way, how can an administration official issue such a denial when the White House position is that it will not comment on the leak case while the investigation remains open?) A lawyer for Rove said that Rove was not the one. (Rove only talked about Wilson's wife with Novak--supposedly as Novak's second source--and Time's Matt Cooper.) As the Times noted--slyly?--"Mr. Cheney did not join the parade of denials." Nor, it seemed, did Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state under Powell.
After these denials came out, a smart columnist called me and asked isn't it now clear the available evidence indicates that Cheney, who was previously interviewed by Fitzgerald, was Woodward's source and that Libby had lied to prevent Cheney from being charged with perjury. Not necessarily, I replied. It's worth noting that, according to the Libby indictment, when Cheney told Libby on June 12, 2003, that Wilson's wife was in the CIA, he said she worked at the Counterproliferation Division, which is part of directorate of operations (aka the DO), the clandestine portion of the CIA. Woodward claims that his source described her as a WMD analyst. The difference in the terminology might be significant. Then again, it might not be. It's also hard to imagine Cheney approaching Fitzgerald and conceding anything, even if he was worried about Libby flipping (and there have been signs of that). But if Cheney--who had been collecting information on Wilson's wife apart from what Libby was doing--did tell a reporter about Valerie Wilson (particularly after finding out she worked in the DO, where most employees are undercover), that would be a rather dramatic shift in the leak saga. [UPDATE: On Thursday night, Associated Press reported that a "person familiar with the investigation" said that Cheney was not Woodward's source. Richard Armitage, look out. CNN is reporting that a spokesperson for Armitage said "no comment" when asked if Armitage was Woodward's source--which makes Armitage the only person on the Official Speculation List who has not yet denied it. ]
But the whole why-would-Libby-lie fuss has been overblown. It is no great riddle. Ideological allies of Libby have claimed that since no crime was broken by the leakers, there was no reason for Libby to mislead purposefully the FBI agents and grand jurors who questioned him about his role in the leak. This argument is thin. First, who knows if no crime occurred. Perhaps one did, but Fitzgerald cannot prove it. More importantly, at the time Libby first spoke to FBI agents about the leak in October 2003 (and claimed he had only passed to reporters scuttlebutt he had picked up from other journalists), he nor anyone else could be certain no crime had transpired. Yet aside from protecting himself--or another (such as his boss)--from being charged with a crime, Libby had plenty of reason not to own up to being involved in the Plame leak. A crime or not, the leak seemed to be part of a hardball--if not ugly--effort to discredit a White House critic, and it potentially damaged national security. Certainly, Libby would not be eager to acknowledge that he and the vice president had gathered material on Valerie Wilson and that he (Libby) had slipped information about her to reporters. This would have been sufficient motivation for Libby to not tell the truth--especially in those early interviews with the FBI, which occurred before Fitzgerald had been appointed.
At that point, Libby might have seen the FBI inquiry as yet another routine leak investigation destined to go nowhere. He might have believed he could get by with a convenient cover story. But once he told the FBI agents he had merely disseminated gossip--when, according to the indictment, he had actively sought and obtained information on Valerie Wilson--he had to stick to his tale, even after Fitzgerald, the bloodhound prosecutor, inherited the probe.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the battle over the prewar intelligence, the rise of the new Open Source Media site, Ahmad Chalabi's weak defense, and other in-the-news matters.
So the Woodward revelation does not provide an answer to the not-that-important question of why Libby lied (if he did). Nor does it help Libby's case much, if at all. On Thursday, the Post published a news story titled "Woodward Could Be a Boon to Libby." The article noted that "legal experts" (note the plural) said that the Woodward disclosure could "cast at least a shadow of doubt on the public case against Libby." But it quoted only one legal expert--a former federal prosecutor named John Moustakas--making such an argument. He said that the Woodward revelation "casts doubt about whether Fitzgerald knew everything as he charged someone with a very serious offense."
But who says a prosecutor has to know "everything" before bringing a case? Libby's legal team reportedly plans to use Woodward's deposition--in which Woodward notes he talked to Libby and Libby did not out Valerie Wilson to him--as evidence that Libby was not hell-bent on revealing Valerie Wilson's CIA connection. But none of this has anything to do with whether Libby lied to investigators and the grand jury when he was asked what he had said to other reporters. The Post article also quotes Randall Eliason, former head of the public corruption unit for the US attorney's office in Washington, DC, dismissing this legal strategy as "defense spin" and noting that the Woodward news "doesn't really tell us anything about the central issue in Libby's case."
The newsflash about Woodward tells us more about Woodward (he sat on information while blasting the investigation) and presumably provides Fitzgerald yet another lead. Where this might take Fitzgerald, if anywhere, is open to wide-ranging conjecture. But one need not know the identity of Woodward's latest secret source (Top Throat?) to ask a pointed question of the White House. When the CIA leak first became the subject of an investigation, Bush declared that everyone in his administration with any information on the matter had to come forward and "speak out." Obviously, Karl Rove did not do this. Neither did Libby. The White House grandly--but falsely--denied they had been "involved" in the leak. And here's another administration official who did not come forward until late in the game. (Why Woodward's source contacted Fitzgerald at this stage is another guessing game.) When is Bush going to acknowledge that he has been surrounded by people who ignored the come-clean command? If the White House can leak word that Bush is not Woodward's source, it certainly can explain why Bush has yet to demand that White House officials be held accountable for disobeying his order.