Smelling like a Rove

The Bush administration said it would fire anyone involved in outing Valerie Plame. Even Karl Rove?

Published July 12, 2005 11:16PM (EDT)

Karl Rove, George W. Bush's chief political strategist, has not been having an especially happy second term. His boss's political fortunes are in the dumps, and nothing Rove plans -- the Terri Schiavo fight, or the Social Security whistle-stop tour, or the president's recent prime-time speech, offering more non-answers on Iraq -- has righted Bush's sinking ship. Now Rove himself has the law breathing down his neck.

The law in this case is Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department a year and a half ago, to determine who leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent to Robert Novak, the conservative syndicated columnist. The undercover operative is Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who questioned the veracity of Bush's claim that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa. In the summer of 2003, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed column for the New York Times, revealing that in 2002 he'd been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the uranium claim -- and found nothing.

The leak to Novak of Plame's identity looked like an attempt by the White House to punish Wilson for speaking out, and Wilson has accused Rove of being involved in the effort to reveal Plame's identity. In the fall of 2003, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the matter. Since then, Fitzgerald has been quietly assembling his case. But the public has only begun to get some hint of investigation's status in the past few months, as Fitzgerald has pressed two Washington journalists -- Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of the New York Times -- to testify about their conversations with White House sources regarding Wilson's claims. Miller was sent to jail last week when she refused to speak.

It's what Rove said to Cooper -- who suddenly agreed, under mysterious circumstances, to testify -- that's now got the strategist in trouble. According to reports of conversations between Rove and Cooper, Rove appears to have disclosed Plame's identity -- while not specifically her name -- to Cooper. But what this means for Rove -- whether he'll be fired, or jailed for what he did -- is a matter of furious speculation. This doozy of a case is not, as you may have guessed, easy to get your mind around. So we've prepared this handy primer.

Is Karl Rove going to jail?

Don't know yet. It's clear from recent reports in Newsweek and the Washington Post that Rove was involved in, and possibly headed, a White House effort to discredit Wilson. What's not clear is whether Rove committed a crime, either by leaking Plame's identity, or by lying to investigators who are trying to determine whether he leaked Plame's identity. Even if Rove did violate the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which prohibits divulging an intelligence agent's identity, investigators may lack the necessary evidence to charge him. Rove continues to deny any wrongdoing.

What do we know about Rove's involvement?

We know that on July 11, 2003 -- the Friday after Wilson's article, What I Didn't Find in Africa," was published in the Sunday New York Times -- Matthew Cooper, who'd just started covering the White House for Time magazine, called Rove to ask what he made of Wilson's story. After the conversation, Cooper sent his editor an e-mail describing what Rove had said. Cooper, who moonlights as a stand-up comedian in Washington, labeled the e-mail "double super secret background." Newsweek obtained it after Time decided to hand it to prosecutors.

The e-mail suggests that Rove gave Cooper an earful. Rove warned the reporter not to "get too far out on Wilson" -- that is, not to put too much stock in what Wilson had written -- because Wilson's trip to Africa, Rove attested, had not been authorized either by George Tenet, the director of the CIA, nor Vice President Dick Cheney. Wilson had only been sent to Niger to check out claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium there because, Rove told Cooper, "wilson's wife, who apparently works at the [Central Intelligence] agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues" had "authorized the trip." In other words, Rove was telling Cooper, Wilson only got the assignment because of nepotism, so there's no reason to believe what he's saying about Saddam.

Rove, Cooper added, said that not only was the "genesis of [Wilson's] trip ... flawed an[d] suspect," but so were Wilson's conclusions about Saddam's WMD search in Africa. Rove "implied strongly there's still plenty to implicate iraqi interest in acquiring uranium fro[m] Niger."

Close readers will spot what Rove did not tell Cooper: Valerie Plame's name. It's not clear whether Rove went into detail about Plame's status at the CIA; she was an operative who often worked undercover and so needed her identity to remain cloaked. In the legal case against Rove, this omission is key, as Rove's attorney says that because Rove didn't name Plame, Rove didn't do anything wrong.

Is that true? Or did Rove violate the Intelligence Identities Protection Act?

Again, it's not cut and dried. As the Washington Post pointed out, "To be considered a violation of the law, a disclosure by a government official must have been deliberate, the person doing it must have known that the CIA officer was a covert agent, and he or she must have known that the government was actively concealing the covert agent's identity."

Based on Cooper's e-mail with Rove, it isn't clear that Rove knew Plame's name. But even if Rove did know Plame's name, which is likely, that fact is not as important as knowing her CIA status. In pointing out her occupation and association to Wilson, Rove was clearly identifying Plame. Was he then knowingly and deliberately disclosing a CIA operative? For that, Rove would have had to know that Plame was undercover. If he didn't know that fact -- if Rove knew Plame simply as Wilson's wife who happened to work on WMD at the CIA -- he didn't commit a crime.

So to stay out of the slammer, can't Rove simply say he didn't know who Plame was?

Yes, and that's essentially Rove's defense. Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, told the Washington Post on Sunday that Rove had no idea who Plame was, other than that she was Wilson's CIA wife. Luskin says that Rove's conversation with Cooper "was not an effort to encourage Time to disclose her identity. What he was doing was discouraging Time from perpetuating some statements that had been made publicly and weren't true." Those allegedly untrue "statements" are claims made by some at the time that Wilson's trip was Cheney's idea; according to Luskin, Rove only mentioned Wilson's wife to show that it was her idea, not Cheney's, for Wilson to go to Africa.

That said, we don't know what Rove told other reporters; specifically, we don't know whether Rove gave Plame's name to Robert Novak, the first journalist to name Plame, who appears to have talked to the prosecutor. But it's a fair guess when you look at the similarity between what Rove told Cooper and what Novak said Bush administration sources told him, and the fact that Cooper spoke to Rove on July 11, a Friday, and Novak's column was published the next Monday.

Here's what Novak wrote in his column outing Plame: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report [which suggested an effort by Saddam to buy uranium in Africa]. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

To recap: Novak was talking to "senior administration officials" around the same time that Cooper was talking to Rove. Novak got the same story from "senior administration officials" that Cooper got from Rove. As we're pretty sure they don't say in Texas, the whole thing sure does stink of turd blossom. And here's where it could get hairy for Rove. If Novak did get Plame's identity from Rove, and if Novak has said as much to special prosecutor Fitzgerald, with whom he's allegedly cooperating, Rove may yet face legal troubles.

So if Novak sings, does Rove go to jail?

Could be. But there are caveats to that, too. Even if Rove -- or anyone else in the White House -- did reveal Plame's name and undercover status to the media, that act may still not qualify as a technical violation of the law. Victoria Toensing and Bruce W. Sanford, two Washington lawyers who helped draft the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, wrote in the Washington Post in January that the law was meant to protect agents who were truly "covert," meaning that the agent's "status as undercover must be classified, and she must have been assigned to duty outside the United States currently or in the past five years. This requirement does not mean jetting to Berlin or Taipei for a week's work. It means permanent assignment in a foreign country." But because Plame had been "living in Washington for some time when the July 2003 column was published, and was working at a desk job in Langley (a no-no for a person with a need for cover), there is a serious legal question as to whether she qualifies as 'covert,'" Toensing and Sanford wrote.

Even if the prosecutor determines that outing Plame was a crime, he will have to prove that Rove did so knowingly and deliberately. And many on the right argue that Rove's defense on this point -- that he was only mentioning Plame to show that Wilson wasn't recommended for the job by anyone really important, like Cheney -- was corroborated by last year's Senate intelligence committee report on Iraq-war intelligence failures. That report quoted the CIA as saying that Wilson was sent to Niger only because Plame "offered up" his name for the job, which Rove would argue is essentially what he told Cooper about Wilson.

Yet the Senate report doesn't completely support Rove's tale because it still leaves the possibility, as Wilson argued, that Cheney asked the CIA to look into the Niger case, and the CIA then asked Wilson to look into it. In his book, "The Politics of Truth," Wilson described his meeting with the CIA to arrange his Niger trip. "My hosts opened the meeting with a brief explanation of why I had been invited to meet with them," he writes. "A report purporting to be a memorandum of sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq had aroused the interest of Vice President Dick Cheney. His office, I was told, had tasked the CIA to determine if there was any truth to the report. I was being asked now to share with the analysts my knowledge of the uranium business and of the Nigerian personalities in power at the time the alleged contract had been executed, supposedly in 1999 or 2000."

Wilson says that his wife had nothing to do with CIA's decision to send him to Niger. He asserts that the White House had no right to talk about his wife in its discussions with reporters regarding his Niger claims.

Even if Rove didn't knowingly divulge Plame's name, isn't inadvertently disclosing her identity bad enough?

Well, yes. In talking to Cooper, Rove disclosed Plame's occupation to a reporter in the service of a political hit job on a White House critic. At the very least, he was careless with sensitive information, which isn't a quality to be prized in a deputy White House chief of staff. To punish Rove's carelessness, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement today, "the President should immediately suspend Karl Rove's security clearances and shut him down by shutting him out of classified meetings or discussions."

Or as Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, recommended in a statement today, Bush should fire Rove. "I agree with the President when he said he expects the people who work for him to adhere to the highest standards of conduct," Reid said. "The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration. I trust they will follow through on this pledge. If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security."

Reid's right. Looking at Bush's statements on the case, you'd expect that Rove might be in some trouble with his boss. "If there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is," Bush said last year. Bush has never discussed the details of the case, but he's suggested that he believes that leaking an operative's name, perhaps even accidentally, is not something he'd tolerate. "I want to know the truth -- leaks of classified information are bad things," he said last year.

Any chance that Bush would fire Rove?

Who knows what Bush will do. Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, has decided not to answer any questions on the case. In a remarkable press briefing on Monday -- remarkable for the tenacity with which reporters kept at McClellan -- the press secretary refused to say whether he believed Rove had committed a crime, whether Bush had lost confidence in Rove, and whether Bush was aware that Rove had spoken to Cooper about Wilson. McClellan, citing the ongoing investigation of the case, repeatedly declined to answer anything. "Well, those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigation while it's ongoing. And that was what they requested of the White House. And so I think in order to be helpful to that investigation, we are following their direction," McClellan said.

As Tim Grieve points out in Salon's War Room, this excuse hasn't stopped McClellan from commenting on the case in the past. The press secretary has previously cleared Rove of any involvement in the case: "Let me make it very clear," McClellan said in October 2003, "as I said previously, he was not involved, and that allegation is not true in terms of leaking classified information, nor would he condone it. So let me be very clear."

Today, reporters pointed that out to him. "You're in a bad spot here, Scott," one reporter told McClellan, "because after the investigation began -- after the criminal investigation was under way -- you said, October 10th, 2003, 'I spoke with those individuals, Rove, [deputy national security advisor Elliott] Abrams, and [Dick Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis] Libby. As I pointed out, those individuals assured me they were not involved in this.' From that podium. That's after the criminal investigation began. Now that Rove has essentially been caught red-handed peddling this information, all of a sudden you have respect for the sanctity of the criminal investigation?"

McClellan responded: "And we want to be helpful so that they can get to the bottom of this, because no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the President of the United States. I am well aware of what was said previously. I remember well what was said previously. And at some point, I look forward to talking about it. But until the investigation is complete, I'm just not going to do that."

So where does that leave us?

Lawyers observing the case have said that the prosecutor, who's known for being tough, may be looking to charge someone for some lesser crime than leaking an undercover operative's name, namely perjury or obstruction of justice. But because we don't know what Rove has said to the grand jury or to investigators, it's impossible to tell whether he's the subject of these investigations, either.

At this point, then, it's distinctly possible that Rove -- the same Rove who recently called liberals soft in their response to the 9/11 attacks -- may face no punishment at all for outing the identity of a CIA agent.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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