What did Hughes know -- and when?

By Geraldine Sealey
Published March 29, 2004 5:35PM (EST)

The White House hopes this week's welcome home party for trusted Bush adviser and friend Karen Hughes will help change the subject away from critical questions about the president's handling of 9/11 and the rush to war in Iraq. Hughes, who famously left Washington two years ago to return to Austin, Texas, where she says life is more "attuned to the school and church calendar," re-enters the fray with a bang: A memoir out tomorrow, a sit-down tonight with Barbara Walters, then a six-week national book tour. Hughes' book, "Ten Minutes from Normal" (referring to a conductor's announcement on Bush's campaign train about Normal, Illinois), apparently isn't much of a page-turning tell-all about her friend and fellow Texan George W. Bush. Instead, as the AP describes it, the memoir is a milquetoast account of balancing duties at work and at home. "I always considered myself a normal person. Except that I have a boss and a friend who became president of the United States," Hughes says.

As uncontroversial as that sounds, Hughes is already using the publication of her book to transition back into a high-profile, on-location role as a Bush-Cheney '04 strategist. Once Hughes finishes her tour, where she "plans to weave her combative defense of the White House" into some serious bookselling, Hughes will go on the Bush campaign payroll come mid-August. She says from then on, she'll be riding Air Force One full-time through Election Day. Hughes' re-emergence to the public stage provides a wealth of opportunities for political reporters. But not just because they'll get colorful quotes from a political pro they worked with during the 2000 campaign -- and not just because of her insights into President Bush's mindset and strategy.

Instead, reporters should start taking a long, hard look at Hughes' possible involvement in the criminal matter now under investigation by a special prosecutor: The outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in order to intimidate her husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson, at the Bush administration's request, looked into the story that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellow-cake uranium in Niger for his nuclear weapons program. Wilson returned to report that the claim was entirely bogus. But President Bush gave it credence in a now-infamous 16-word section of his State of the Union address, advancing it as a reason for war. When the administration continued to push the false story, Wilson went public in an op-ed article in The New York Times. In retaliation, Plame's name and cover was leaked, a serious federal crime, to conservative columnist Robert Novak. Now a special prosecutor is investigating and a grand jury is impaneled; indictments may be forthcoming.

Karen Hughes and her actions have fallen under the scrutiny of the prosecutor. The Plame grand jury has subpoenaed records created by the White House Iraq Group in July 2003, the same month Plame was outed in the Novak column. Hughes was a member of the White House Iraq Group, an internal body that coordinated strategy for, among other things, selling the war here at home. Other members of the group were Karl Rove, Mary Matalin, James Wilkinson, legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio and policy advisers including Condoleezza Rice, her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, and I. Lewis Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

A USA Today story from July 2003 also describes how Hughes was among a small group of strategists who devised the strategy to counter Wilson's Niger story. The article says, "The plan: Release all relevant information. Try to shift attention back to Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism. Diminish the significance of that single piece of iffy intelligence by making the case that Saddam was a threat for many other reasons. Put Republican lawmakers and other Bush allies on TV to defend him. Most important: Question the motives of Democrats who supported the war but now are criticizing the president."

On her media tour, there are many relevant questions Hughes might be asked: Were Plame or Wilson's names ever mentioned at the meetings of the White House Iraq Group? By whom? What is the relation of that group to any damage control group involving Plame and Wilson? Since Hughes wasn't officially on the White House payroll, did the order by the White House counsel not to destroy records in the Plame case apply to her? Has Hughes retained counsel in this matter? Has she testified before the grand jury or been interviewed by the FBI? Has she discussed Valerie Plame or Joe Wilson with anyone in the White House Iraq Group -- or any other White House officials -- at any time, before or after the publication of the Novak column? With whom has she ever discussed Plame or Wilson? Rove? "Scooter" Libby? Cheney? The President?

And for White House press secretary Scott McClellan, there's this question: Republicans have attacked former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke for the timing of his new book and have accused him of seeking profit and publicity as his motive for revealing the facts about Bush's record on terrorism prior to 9/11. Will you withdraw criticism of Clarke on this score in light of Karen Hughes' extensive book promotion just as she is about to assume a position with the campaign?

We're sure enterprising reporters can devise more of their own queries. Barbara Walters can start it all off tonight in primetime by going beyond soft-touch treatment to ask Hughes critical questions about just what her role was in the outing of Valerie Plame.

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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