Rove's war

Bush's right-hand man is dispatching his troops to smear Joe Wilson -- and save himself. He may win in Washington, but the special prosecutor will have the last word.

Published July 14, 2005 5:42PM (EDT)

This is Karl Rove's war. From his command post next to the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House, he is furiously directing the order of battle. The Republican National Committee lobs its talking points across Washington, its chairman forays the no-man's-land of CNN. Rove's lawyer, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial board are sent over the top. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay man the ramparts, defending Rove's character.

For two years, since the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the disclosure of the identity of an undercover CIA operative, President Bush and his press secretary, Scott McClellan, have repeatedly denied the involvement of anyone in the White House. "Have you talked to Karl and do you have confidence in him?" a reporter asked Bush on Sept. 30, 2003. "Listen, I know of nobody," he replied. "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."

Bush backed himself into that corner because of a sequence of events beginning with the ultimate rationale he offered for the Iraq war. Public support for the war had wavered until the administration asserted unequivocally that Saddam Hussein was seeking to acquire and build nuclear weapons. Its most incendiary claim was that he had tried to purchase enriched yellowcake uranium in Niger. An Italian magazine, Panorama, had received documents appearing to prove the charge. Former ambassador Joseph Wilson was secretly sent by the CIA to investigate, and he found no evidence to substantiate the story. The CIA subsequently protested inclusion of the rumor in a draft of a Bush speech, and Bush delivered it on Oct. 7, 2002, without it.

But a month earlier, a British white paper had mentioned the Niger rumor. And in his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." These 16 notorious words had already been proved false, however (debunked by three separate reports from administration officials, which were apparently ignored ahead of Bush's speech). On March 7, 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the Niger documents were "not authentic." The following day, the State Department concurred that they were forgeries. The invasion of Iraq began on March 20.

After the war began, the administration refused to acknowledge those 16 words were false. To set the record straight, Wilson wrote an Op-Ed article on July 6, 2003, in the New York Times titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa." It was the first crack in the credibility of the administration's case for the war, suggesting that the underlying intelligence had been abused, distorted and even forged. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later admitted, "It was information that was mistaken." And CIA Director George Tenet said the lines "should never have been included in a text written for the president."

A week after Wilson's Op-Ed appeared, on July 14, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson's "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." The revelation of Plame's identity may be a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 -- a felony carrying a 10-year prison sentence. Apparently, the release of Plame's identity was political payback against Wilson by a White House that wanted to shift the subject of the Iraq war to his motives.

On July 30, the CIA referred a "crime report" to the Justice Department. "If she was not undercover, we would not have a reason to file a criminal referral," a CIA official said. On Dec. 30, the Justice Department appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, as the special prosecutor.

Fitzgerald's investigation stalled when two reporters he subpoenaed, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times, initially refused to testify. But Time handed over Cooper's notes on his conversation with Rove to the prosecutor, and Cooper eventually decided to cooperate. Miller chose to remain in contempt of court and has been imprisoned until the grand jury is dissolved. With the publication of Cooper's memo to his editors two weeks ago, the White House was asked about whether the president would adhere to its own "highest standards," as McClellan had put it, and fire anyone involved in outing Plame. But since Monday, both McClellan and Bush have refused to comment on the investigation. While the White House stonewalls, Rove has license to run his own damage-control operation. His surrogates argue that if Rove did anything, it wasn't a crime. There's no cause for outrage, except at Joe Wilson, and now, in a turn of the screw, Matt Cooper. The inhabitants of the political village should busy themselves with their arts and crafts. No one's status will be endangered or access withdrawn, it is implied, if they do nothing rash. They should simply accept that exposing undercover CIA operatives is part of politics as usual. Return to your homes. Stay calm.

Rove is fighting his war as though it will be settled in a court of Washington pundits. Brandishing his formidable political weapons, he seeks to demonstrate his prowess once again. His corps of agents raises a din in which their voices drown out individual dissidents. His frantic massing of forces dominates the capital by winning the communications battle. Indeed, Rove may succeed momentarily in quelling the storm. But the stillness may be illusory. Before the prosecutor, Rove's arsenal is useless.

Can the special counsel be confounded by manipulation of the Washington chattering class? What's the obligation of a reporter to a source in this case? What game are Rove and his surrogates playing? What are the legal vulnerabilities of Rove and others in the White House?

Wilson's article provided the first evidence that the reasons given for the war were stoked by false information. But the attack on Wilson by focusing on his wife is superficially perplexing. Even if the allegation were true that she "authorized" his mission, as Rove told Cooper, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the Niger forgeries, or any indictment. But Rove's is a psychological operation intended to foster the perception that the messenger is somehow untrustworthy and that therefore his message is too. The aim is to distract and discredit. By creating an original taint on Wilson's motives, an elaborate negative image has been constructed.

The Wall Street Journal editorial of July 13 best reflected the through-the-looking-glass Rovian defense and projection: "For Mr. Rove is turning out to be the real "whistleblower" in this whole sorry pseudo-scandal ... In short, Mr. Rove provided important background so Americans could understand that Mr. Wilson wasn't a whistleblower but was a partisan trying to discredit the Iraq War in an election campaign."

In order to untangle this deceptive web, it's essential to return to the beginning of the long disinformation campaign triggered by the publication of Wilson's Op-Ed. The facts clarify not only the mendacity of the smears but also the seeming quandary of the reporters who have become collateral damage.

In early 2002, Valerie Plame was an officer in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA task force on counter-proliferation, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, including Saddam's WMD programs. At that time, as she had been for almost two decades, she was an undercover operative. After training at "The Farm," the CIA's school for clandestine agents, she became what the agency considers among its most valuable and dangerous operatives -- a NOC, or someone who works under non-official cover. NOCs travel without diplomatic passports, so if they are captured as spies they have no immunity and can potentially be executed. As a NOC, Plame helped set up a front company, Brewster-Jennings, whose cover has now been blown and whose agents and contacts may be in danger still. After marrying Wilson in 1998, she took Wilson as her last name.

When the Italian report on Niger uranium surfaced, Vice President Cheney's office contacted the CIA's counter-proliferation office to look into it. Such a request is called a "tasker." It was hardly the first query the task force had received from the White House, and such requests were not made through the CIA director's office, but directly. Plame's colleagues asked her if she would invite her husband out to CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., for a meeting with them, to assess the question.

It was unsurprising that the CIA would seek out Wilson. He had already performed one secret mission to Niger for the agency, in 1999, and was trusted. Wilson had also had a distinguished and storied career as a Foreign Service officer. He served as acting ambassador in Iraq during the Gulf War and was hailed by the first President Bush as a "hero." Wilson was an important part of the team and highly regarded by Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Wilson was also an Africa specialist. He had been a diplomat in Niger, ambassador to Gabon and senior director for Africa on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. (I first encountered Wilson then, and we have since become friends.) No other professional had such an ideal background for this CIA mission.

Plame's superiors asked her to cable the field in Africa for routine approval of an investigation of the Niger claim. At Langley, Wilson met with about a dozen officers to discuss the situation. Plame was not at the meeting. Afterward, Wilson informed his wife that he would be traveling to Niger for about 10 days. She was not particularly enthusiastic, having recently given birth to twins, but she understood the importance of the mission. She had no authority to commission him. She was simply not the responsible senior officer. Nor, if she had been, could she have done so unilaterally. There was nothing of value to be gained personally from the mission by either Joe or Valerie Wilson. He undertook the trip out of a long-ingrained sense of government service.

CIA officers debriefed Wilson the night of his return at his home. His wife greeted the other operatives, but excused herself. She later read a copy of his debriefing report, but she made no changes in it. The next they spoke of Niger uranium was when they heard President Bush's mention of it in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Attributing Wilson's trip to his wife's supposed authority became the predicate for a smear campaign against his credibility. Seven months after the appointment of the special counsel, in July 2004, the Republican-dominated Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued its report on flawed intelligence leading to the Iraq war. The blame for failure was squarely put on the CIA for "groupthink." (The Republicans quashed a promised second report on political pressure on the intelligence process.) The three-page addendum by the ranking Republicans followed the now well-worn attack lines: "The plan to send the former ambassador to Niger was suggested by the former ambassador's wife, a CIA employee."

The CIA subsequently issued a statement, as reported by New York Newsday and CNN, that the Republican senators' conclusion about Plame's role was wholly inaccurate. But the Washington Post's Susan Schmidt reported only the Republican senators' version, writing that Wilson was "specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly," in a memo she wrote. Schmidt quoted a CIA official in the senators' account saying that Plame had "offered up" Wilson's name. Plame's memo, in fact, was written at the express directive of her superiors two days before Wilson was to come to Langley for his meeting to describe his qualifications in a standard protocol to receive "country clearance." Unfortunately, Schmidt's article did not reflect this understanding of routine CIA procedure. The CIA officer who wrote the memo that originally recommended Wilson for the mission -- who was cited anonymously by the senators as the only source who said that Plame was responsible -- was deeply upset at the twisting of his testimony, which was not public, and told Plame he had said no such thing. CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told Wilson that the Republican Senate staff never contacted him for the agency's information on the matter.

Curiously, the only document cited as the basis for Plame's role was a State Department memo that was later debunked by the CIA. The Washington Post, on Dec. 26, 2003, reported: "CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of the ... document, the official said, because the agency officer identified as talking about Plame's alleged role in arranging Wilson's trip could not have attended the meeting. 'It has been circulated around,' one official said." Even more curious, one of the outlets where the document was circulated was Talon News Service and its star correspondent, Jeff Gannon (aka Guckert). (Talon was revealed to be a partisan front for a Texas-based operation called GOPUSA and Gannon was exposed as a male prostitute, without previous journalistic credentials yet with easy and unexplained access to the White House.) According to the Post, "the CIA believes that people in the administration continue to release classified information to damage the figures at the center of the controversy."

Fitzgerald sought testimony from Cooper because he had published an article on the Wilson case, citing anonymous White House sources. Miller had published no article at all. Apparently, another witness gave up Miller's name to the prosecutor under questioning. Who that witness might be and under what circumstances he cited Miller is unknown. (In the run-up to the war, Miller's articles on WMD were crucial in creating a political atmosphere favorable to the administration's case. But her articles were later revealed to be false, based on disinformation, and the Times published a long apology.)

Both Cooper and Miller argued that they were entitled to journalistic privilege to protect their sources. But the court ruled against them. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan's opinion suggested that the prosecutor's case had deepened and widened.

In discussing the sealed affidavit filed by Fitzgerald, and not privy to the defendants, Hogan stated that the "Special Counsel outlines in great detail the developments in this case and the investigation as a whole. The ex parte affidavit establishes that the government's focus has shifted as it has acquired additional information during the course of the investigation. Special Counsel now needs to pursue different avenues in order to complete its investigation." Judge Hogan concluded that "the subpoenas were not issued in an attempt to harass the [reporters], but rather stem from legitimate needs due to an unanticipated shift in the grand jury's investigation."

Now Miller languishes in jail and Cooper has testified before the grand jury. Is Miller protecting her sources, or does the prosecutor seek to question her as a disseminator of information? Should a journalist protect a source if that person has not provided true information as best they know, but disinformation? What is the obligation of reporters to protect people who have misled them?

In the best-case scenario for Miller, Bill Kovach believes that any pledge she may have made to a source should be invalid. Kovach is the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, former curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University and founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He describes the internal policy set within the Times on sources. "By the 1980s, we decided that we had to set some limits because reporters had been misled and the credibility of the news reports had been damaged by misleading sources. When I was chief of the bureau in Washington, we laid down a rule to the reporters that when they wanted to establish anonymity they had to lay out ground rules that if anything the source said was damaging, false or damaged the credibility of the newspaper we would identify them."

In the Plame matter, Kovach sees no obligation of the reporters to false sources. "If a man damages your credibility, why not lay the blame where it belongs? If Plame were an operative, she wouldn't have the authority to send someone. Whoever was leaking that information to Novak, Cooper or Judy Miller was doing it with malice aforethought, trying to set up a deceptive circumstance. That would invalidate any promise of confidentiality. You wouldn't protect a source for telling lies or using you to mislead your audience. That changes everything. Any reporter that puts themselves or a news organization in that position is making a big mistake."

Obviously, the Times is not imposing the rules in its present crisis that Kovach was involved in making. Are the editors unfocused on the underlying facts and falsehoods? Do the editors have a responsibility to determine who is a fair source and who is a deceiver? Has anyone fully debriefed Miller? For now, the Times is frozen in its heroic defense of the First Amendment.

Washington, meanwhile, is an echo chamber of Rove's agents. His lawyer, Robert Luskin, has trashed Cooper: "By any definition, he burned Karl Rove." RNC chairman Ken Mehlman has appeared on talk shows, given newspaper interviews and circulated a three-page memo of talking points to Republican surrogates. In one brief statement, for example, Mehlman said: "The fact is Karl Rove did not leak classified information. He did not, according to what we learned this past weekend, reveal the name of anybody. He didn't even know the name ... He tried to discourage a reporter from writing a story that was false."

Mehlman's farrago of lies and distortions may be a fair representation of Rove's fears. Is it "the fact" that Rove didn't leak classified information? Plame's identity of course was classified. That is why the CIA referred the matter to the Department of Justice for investigation. But is Mehlman disclosing yet another Rove worry? The prosecutor can indict under any statute, including simply leaking classified information. Is Rove afraid of being indicted under that law, not just the one that makes it a crime to identify Plame? Mehlman raises a further Rove anxiety. No, Rove didn't "reveal the name." But the law doesn't cite that as a felony; it only specifies revealing the "identity" as a crime. It says nothing about a "name." Rove revealed "Joe Wilson's wife." That qualifies as an "identity." By the way, Plame did not go by the name of Plame, but Wilson -- in other words, Mrs. Wilson, or "Joe Wilson's wife." Rove seemed to know that much -- her identity.

Helpfully guiding a reporter to the truth and away from "a story that was false"? Indeed, Rove was planting two false stories, not just one. The first was that "Joe Wilson's wife" had sent him on his mission; the second was to suggest that Wilson was wrong and that there would be new information to support the original Bush falsehood. In fact, the White House admitted that Wilson was correct and that Bush's 16 words were wrong. Yet Rove attempted to insinuate doubt in the mind of the reporter to discourage him from writing a story that was true.

At one point, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked Mehlman if he had attended meetings at the White House on how to deal with Wilson. Suddenly, the voluble Mehlman constricted. "I don't recall those meetings occurring," he said. Has the prosecutor inquired about such meetings and their participants?

The sound and fury of Rove's defenders will soon subside. The last word, the only word that matters, will belong to the prosecutor. So far, he has said very, very little. Unlike the unprofessional, inexperienced and weak Ken Starr, he does not leak illegally to the press. But he has commented publicly on his understanding of the case. "This case," he said, "is not about a whistle-blower. It's about a potential retaliation against a whistle-blower."

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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