Karl Rove's no-name defense

An email message turned over by Time magazine shows that Rove told Matthew Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife was a CIA analyst. It wasn't hard to figure out the rest.

Published July 11, 2005 5:28AM (EDT)

George W. Bush never said publicly that Saddam Hussein masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11. But if you sat through one of the president's campaign speeches last year or his big Iraq speech this month, you sure would have walked away with that notion.

Ever wonder how he learned that trick? Meet Karl Rove.

Rove never said publicly that he had nothing to do with leaking Valerie Plame's identity to the press, but he sure managed to give people that impression. When CNN asked him about the Plame case last summer, Rove said: "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name."

Maybe that was technically correct, but it's now clear that it was something less than the whole truth. As Newsweek is reporting, Karl Rove may not have referred to Plame by name when he spoke with Time's Matthew Cooper on July 11, 2003. But the email messages Time has turned over to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald show that, in a phone call with Cooper that day, Rove tried to discredit Joseph Wilson's conclusion that Iraq hadn't tried to buy uranium from Niger by claiming that Wilson had been assigned to look into the Iraq-Niger connection not by the vice president or by the director of the CIA but by Wilson's wife. And Wilson's wife, Rove told Cooper, was a CIA analyst working on WMD issues.

So Rove was the one who outed Plame, right? Well, you might think so -- unless you're Rove or his lawyer. Remember, Rove said he didn't know Plame's name and didn't leak her name. And in an interview with the Washington Post Sunday, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, seized on that point, saying that his client "did not mention [Plame's] name to Cooper." Of course, just three days after Rove spoke with Cooper, Robert Novak wrote a column that sounded a whole lot like the story that Rove had tried to spin for Time. In Novak's telling of it, however, "Joseph Wilson's wife" suddenly had a name. It was Valerie Plame, "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction." How hard was it to get from "Joseph Wilson's wife" to "Valerie Plame"? Not very. As Novak himself acknowledged in a subsequent column, Wilson's wife's name was listed -- without mention of her job at the CIA, of course -- in Wilson's "Who's Who in America" entry.

So where does this leave things? Given the secrecy of Fitzgerald's grand jury proceedings, it's hard to know for sure. It's plainly no defense to the crime of leaking the identity of a CIA agent to say that you didn't actually use her name: Federal law prohibits the intentional disclosure of "any information identifying" a covert agent. But if Fitzgerald is focused more on a perjury claim, then what matters is what Rove told the grand jury. If Rove was as careful there as he was with CNN -- that is, if he said he didn't name names but stopped short of saying that he wasn't involved at all -- then it will be hard for Fitzgerald to make a perjury charge stick even if Rove's testimony amounted to something less than coming entirely clean.

But what if Rove went a little further before the grand jury? What if he came closer to an explicit denial of any involvement in leaking Plame's identity? If Rove made that mistake, a perjury charge could be in the offing. But Rove wouldn't be so stupid or so arrogant to think he could get away with bluffing the grand jury, right? Well, maybe. When White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked about the Plame case on Oct. 10, 2003, McClellan said he had asked Rove and other White House officials and that "those individuals assured me they were not involved" in "the leaking of classified information."

Maybe McClellan was lying. But if McClellan was offering an accurate account of what Rove told him -- and if Rove repeated that story under oath before the grand jury -- then Patrick Fitzgerald may soon have something to teach the Bush administration about the importance of telling the truth.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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