Why didn't Bush tell the truth?

Conventional wisdom said that Clinton could have avoided impeachment if he had just come clean from the beginning. Bush couldn't take that risk.

Published July 15, 2005 1:42PM (EDT)

It was conventional wisdom then and remains so today: If Bill Clinton had just told the truth from the beginning -- if he hadn't said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" -- that scandal might have blown over and the nation might have been spared the spectacle of impeachment proceedings.

So why didn't George W. Bush just tell the truth about Karl Rove?

For Clinton, coming clean about Monica Lewinsky would have been both personally humiliating and politically risky. Yes, the scandal might have blown over, but he also might have been driven out of office on the spot. But what was the risk to Bush in telling the truth, from the very beginning, about Rove's involvement in the Valerie Plame leak?

Imagine this scenario. Bob Novak publishes his column on Sept. 14, 2003, and in it he reveals that "Valerie Plame" is a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction." There's an uproar from Wilson and the left and maybe even the CIA about the outing of a CIA agent. But Scott McClellan or Karl Rove or George W. Bush instantly admits Rove's role, wrapping it up in one of the stories the Republicans are spinning now. Yes, Rove confirmed Plame's identity for Novak and even shared it with Matthew Cooper, but he didn't know she was an undercover agent, or she wasn't really an undercover agent, or he didn't really know her name, or he didn't really mean to reveal her identity, or his real purpose was just to set the record straight about Wilson, or it was all just a slip of the tongue or whatever.

Maybe we're crazy, but knowing this administration and the kind of free ride it has gotten from the media until -- well, until this week -- we're guessing that that's about a two-day story.

So why didn't Bush go that route? As an initial matter, it's possible that he simply didn't know the truth back in September 2003. Although Bush said then that he had directed his staff to come forward with any information it had about the leak, maybe Rove didn't do so, hanging McClellan out to tell a lie -- it's "ridiculous" to suggest that Rove was involved, and "the president knows" that he wasn't -- and leaving the president looking either clueless or deceitful.

But even if Bush did know about Rove's involvement in 2003, there was something else that would have kept him from coming clean. No, not something else. Someone else. Novak says he had two sources for his Plame column. Rove was apparently one of them -- the one who merely confirmed what Novak had already heard about Wilson's wife. The other source -- the first source -- was some other "senior administration official."

And that's why, even if they knew the truth about Rove back in September 2003, Bush and McClellan couldn't have come clean then. It's one thing to say Rove goofed or screwed up -- even if, given his track record of leaking to Novak, some percentage of the American public wouldn't buy it. It's another thing to explain how two members of the administration -- one of them Rove, one of them a "senior administration official" -- made that "mistake." That kind of explanation opens the door to questions the White House wouldn't have wanted to answer then and doesn't want to answer now. Were the leaks part of a coordinated effort? A conspiracy? Did Rove learn of Wilson's wife role at the CIA from some other reporter before talking to Novak, as a source tells the Associated Press? If so, where did that reporter learn of Plame's role? Or did Rove learn of Plame's role from the same "senior administration official" who told Novak about it? If so, why was Rove told about Plame's job? Why did the president's top political advisor need to know who was and who wasn't working at the CIA?

Or maybe both Rove and the "senior administration official" learned of Plame's role from someone else. If so, who? Assuming for a moment Dick Cheney wasn't the "senior administration official," was he the one who spread the news about Plame's job to Rove and the other source? Did he know that the story was circulating? Did Bush?

And then, of course, there's this: Who was the "senior administration official," and is he -- and Novak makes it clear that it's a "he" -- so senior that the White House couldn't risk revealing that he had a role in the Plame leak, especially before Bush was reelected? Rove has been before the grand jury three times. Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, has testified. So has Scott McClellan. The prosecutors have interviewed Cheney, and Bush has spoken with them too -- right after retaining a private attorney to advise him in the case.

We're getting ever closer to the truth of what happened in the Plame case. And each step of the way, we're getting a better understanding of why the White House -- the conventional wisdom of the Clinton years notwithstanding -- might have decided that it was worth engaging in a coverup to keep that truth from the American people.

By Tim Grieve

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

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