Scott McClellan, White House press secretary, falsely accused me of rigging the truth. But before we get to that, the news of the day: the Bush administration is responding ridiculously to reports that the CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether White House officials revealed the identity of an undercover CIA officer to punish or discredit an administration critic.
Regular readers of this column will remember that back in July conservative columnist Bob Novak wrote a piece in which he reported that two “senior administration officials” had told him that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson (who had publicly challenged the White House’s claim that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger), was employed by the CIA and worked on counter-proliferation matters. Novak printed her name. The leakers apparently were trying to suggest that Wilson–who had been sent by the CIA to check out the Niger allegations and who concluded that there was nothing to them–had not been chosen for the job on merit. Wilson said that he considered the leak–which blew his wife’s cover and perhaps undermined national security–was a message from the White House to others who might speak out against it: don’t cross us, or we’ll come after you and your family.
To brag a bit, I was the first journalist to report that the Novak leak was evidence of a possible White House crime. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a felony for an official who possesses classified information to reveal the identity of a covert officer. The punishment is up to ten years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $50,000. (This law was championed by George H.W. Bush, former CIA director and father of W.) This past weekend, MSNBC.com revealed that the CIA has requested that the Justice Department investigate the anti-Wilson leak. And The Washington Post, citing an unnamed senior administration official, reported that “two top White House officials” had called at least six Washington journalists in an effort to disclose the identity and secret occupation of Wilson’s wife. That makes it seem as if there was a White House campaign targeting the Wilsons. (Wilson, by the way, is a winner of the new Ron Ridenhour Award, which is given in honor of the My Lai whistleblower and journalist.)
This is trouble for the White House. And that was evident today at McClellan’s daily briefing for reporters. He was repeatedly asked what Bush intended to do to get to the bottom of this ugly episode. In essence, McClellan’s answer was, nothing. Over and over, McClellan said the Justice Department, not the White House, was the “appropriate agency” to investigate. And he said that anyone with information on this matter should contact the Justice Department–not the president. But shouldn’t the president be taking steps on his own? the reporters wondered. Every time that query was placed in front of McClellan, he batted it away with a stock reply, noting that the White House had no information beyond the media reports–which were based on anonymous sources–to “suggest White House involvement” in the Wilson leak. “Are we supposed to chase down every anonymous report in the newspaper?” McClellan asked. And several times, he challenged his inquisitors, “Do you have any specific information to bring to my attention suggesting White House involvement?”
This was a ruse. McClellan was claiming that the White House was not obligated to conduct an inquiry in response to allegations predicated on anonymous sources. But the CIA’s request for an investigation indicated these allegations are serious and not merely the routine spin often attributed to anonymous sources in the media. After all, the anonymous quotes that appear in the papers each day rarely charge the White House with criminal behavior that possibly harmed national security. Isn’t Bush–who promised to restore honesty and integrity to the White House–curious about whether his aides might have engaged in illegal and underhanded conduct? McClellan maintained that Bush takes the matter seriously. Just not seriously enough to order any action, such as questioning top White House aides.
McClellan did assert that the White House had determined that Bush uber-adviser Karl Rove, was not a party to the Wilson leak. But he declined to say how that had been learned or when he had spoken to Rove about this. McClellan further defended Rove by saying, “I’ve known Karl for a long time, and I didn’t even need to go ask Karl because I know the kind of person that he is, and he is someone that is committed to the highest standards of conduct.” (“Have you read any book about him lately?” one reporter replied, and McClellan did not take the bait.) When McClellan was asked if Bush was “convinced that there was no White House involvement” in the Wilson leak, he did not answer.
McClellan presented a poor case for why the Bush White House was refusing to look into the allegations, and the journalists got annoyed. Near the end of the briefing–after McClellan once more explained White House inaction by saying, “if there is specific information that you have to bring to our attention, please do so”–a frustrated reporter exclaimed, “You keep pointing the finger at us to step forward with information. I mean, you’re asking us to come forward and reveal things, but you haven’t asked the White House staff to.”
This was a weird situation. Here was McClellan telling the press corps that he and the White House had absolutely no information of their own on the Wilson leak, yet several reporters–including Novak–know exactly who called them to pass on the information on Wilson’s wife. These reporters, though, can only reveal the truth by ratting out a confidential source. As of yet, none of them have done so. In fact, several White House reporters with whom I spoke–who were not contacted by the leakers–had only guesses as to which White House aides might have orchestrated the Wilson leak. That is, the identity of the leakers has not yet become out-in-the-open scuttlebutt. But there are journalists–NBC’s Andrea Mitchell appears to be one–who can say definitively whether the White House was behind the leak.
Shortly before McClellan hit the podium, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer called for a special counsel to handle the investigation. He argued that Attorney General John Ashcroft and his political appointees should not be trusted to oversee a probe of the White House. Asked about a special counsel, McClellan said there was no need, and he asserted the Justice Department could handle it. “Scott,” one reporter said, “the statement you gave about why there shouldn’t be a special prosecutor was almost word for word what the Clinton people said in 1994 about why there shouldn’t be a special prosecutor in Whitewater. Why should it stand now if it didn’t stand then?” McClellan answered: “I just reject that comparison.” The reporters laughed.
Pity McClellan. He has a tough task–to depict the president as caring about the leak even though he is doing nothing about it. The White House could well end up being ensnared in this scandal. The early signs are that there was indeed a plot to get Wilson (and destroy the career of his wife). The news reports indicate that some administration officials–perhaps only one or two–are upset about this and are willing to talk to reporters. If they’re willing to talk to reporters, they might be willing to speak to prosecutors. The CIA must be committed to pushing the issue, otherwise it would not have requested an inquiry that places the White House in the crosshairs. Before this, the CIA and the White House had engaged in tense scuffling concerning the uranium-from-Niger controversy. But Tenet’s request for an investigation was the bureaucratic equivalent of going nuclear. Now the Justice Department is in the spotlight. Will it go ahead with an investigation that threatens the White House? And will its decisions in this case be regarded as credible and not influenced by politics? Schumer says that he is rounding up more Democrats to join his call for a special counsel. In the meantime, McClellan will have to keep on dancing.
Speaking of which. At one point at the press conference, the subject shifted to a letter recently sent to Tenet by the House intelligence committee reporting on the committee’s review of the prewar intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs and ties to terrorists. The committee found that this intelligence–which Bush has said was a solid basis for going to war–was predicated on fragmentary, circumstantial and out-of-date information and contained “too many uncertainties.” McClellan noted, “Let’s look at what we knew. We knew, just like the United Nations Security Council and intelligence agencies across the world and previous administrations, that Saddam Hussein…had large, unaccounted for stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons….We knew all these facts. Then came September 11th.”
Wrong. And since I was there in the White House briefing room, I pointed out this was not the case, noting that Secretary of State Colin Powell had said in early 2001 that there were no stockpiles (“Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction”), that the Defense Intelligence Agency in September 2002 had concluded there was no “reliable information” on whether Iraq had chemical weapons stockpiles, and that the UN inspectors had not said there were WMD stockpiles. “Where are you getting your information?” I asked. Referring to the Powell statement, McClellan said, “That’s not what he said….I think you’re mischaracterizing Secretary Powell’s comments.” But it was what he said in 2001, I countered. McClellan then claimed “it was well documented by the United Nations Security Council that there were undocumented stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.” No, I said, and referred to Rolf Ekeus, the former executive chairman of the UN inspections in the 1990s. In a 2000 interview, Ekeus said, “There are no large quantities of weapons [in Iraq]. I don’t think that Iraq is especially eager in the biological and chemical area to produce such weapons for storage. Iraq views those weapons as tactical assets instead of strategic assets, which would require long-term storage of those elements, which is difficult. Rather, Iraq has been aiming to keep the capability to start up production immediately should it need to.”
McClellan did not counter facts with facts. Instead, he tossed out rhetoric: “America is safer, the world is better, the world is safer because Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime have been removed from power.”
The facts are closing in on Bush and his crowd. And perhaps the law–that is, if Bush’s comrades at the Justice Department are on the level. As Iraq continues to be a $170 billion headache, they have tied themselves to the mast of their prewar misrepresentations. As the Wilson leak threatens to become a primetime scandal, they are yielding no ground and hoping this inconvenience blows past. All in all, a precarious position for Bush. These are messes too severe to be straightened out by McClellan’s heavy-handed, ludicrous spin.
JUST RELEASED: David Corn’s new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers, due out September 30). For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.