There are still plenty of questions about Karl Rove's involvement in the Valerie Plame case, and we trust that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald will eventually get to the bottom of them. But given what we know today, the very best that anyone can say of Karl Rove is that, on July 11, 2003, he broke the cover of a CIA analyst in order to discredit criticism of the way George W. Bush used intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.
That's not partisan hyperbole; incredibly, it is Karl Rove's defense.
In order to show that Rove and his colleagues in the White House weren't engaged in a conspiracy to reveal Plame's identity, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, says that Rove had another goal in mind when he told Time's Matthew Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA analyst: It was all about politics.
When Cooper called Rove on July 11, 2003, Wilson had just written an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times in which he said that his investigation into the allegation that Iraq had purchased uranium yellowcake from Niger had left him with "little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Cooper asked Rove about the Wilson report at the end of their telephone conversation. Rove's response? According to Cooper's e-mail message to his editor, Rove warned Cooper "not to get too far out" on Wilson's allegations because the source wasn't credible. Rove said that neither Vice President Dick Cheney nor CIA Director George Tenet had assigned Wilson to the Niger investigation. Rather, he said, the job came from Wilson's own wife, who was, Rove told Cooper, a CIA analyst working on WMD issues.
So you see, Luskin tells the New York Times, "A fair reading of the e-mail as well as the context in which the conversation took place makes it clear that the information conveyed was not part of an organized effort to disclose Plame's identity." Rather, Luskin tells the Washington Post: "What [Rove] was doing was discouraging Time from perpetuating some statements that had been made publicly and weren't true."
That defense may keep Karl Rove free from some sort of criminal conspiracy charge. And Rove's sometimes careful denials about his involvement -- "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name" -- may keep him out of prison on a perjury conviction. But none of that can change the fact that Karl Rove revealed the identity of a CIA agent in order to discredit criticism of the president's use of intelligence in the run-up to a war that has now claimed the lives of at least 1,755 Americans.
It's one thing to orchestrate nasty whispering campaigns about your political opponents when you're working as a private political consultant. There's plenty of evidence that Rove engaged in those kinds of tactics for Bush back in Texas and again for Bush during the South Carolina primary in 2000. We might not like it, but as Bush told John McCain during the 2000 campaign, "It's politics." This is different. Rove isn't a private political consultant anymore; he's a federal employee and the president's deputy chief of staff. And outing a CIA agent isn't just political hardball, or "fair game" as Rove once told Chris Matthews. As Bush himself said of the Plame case last February, "Leaks of classified information are bad things." How bad? So bad that Bush's press secretary said back in September 2003 that, "if anyone in this administration was involved" in the outing of Valerie Plame, that person would "no longer be in this administration."
The press secretary isn't saying much today. At today's White House press briefing, he repeatedly refused to answer questions about the president's deputy chief of staff. "There will be a time to talk about this," Scott McClellan said at one point, "but now is not the time to talk about it."
He's right -- there will be plenty of time for talking later. Now is a time for action. Karl Rove traded away the identity of a CIA agent and, arguably, some portion of the nation's security in order to discredit one of the president's critics on the question of war. Thus, whatever comes of the criminal investigation that keeps McClellan from answering questions, we know at a minimum that Rove has breached the trust of his office and failed to live up to the standards that Bush has set for his own administration. It is time for Rove to go. And if he can't see that yet, it is time for the president to tell him.