Was it Ari Fleischer?

If Karl Rove was Bob Novak's second source on the Plame story, there had to have been a first. Here's how the dots connect on one candidate.

Published July 15, 2005 8:09PM (EDT)

We can play the guessing game for months, and we probably will: With several sources confirming that Karl Rove was Bob Novak's second source for his Valerie Plame column, which "senior administration official" was the first? There are several attractive candidates -- including Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, Scooter Libby -- but at least a little attention is focusing now on former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, either as a leaker himself or as a participant in a subsequent coverup.

The New York Daily News says it has "sources" who say that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is "looking beyond" the question of who leaked Plame's identity to see whether White House aides tried to "cover their tracks" after her name became public. The sources tell the Daily News that Fitzgerald's grand jury is investigating what role, if any, Fleischer may have played in the case.

As Think Progress notes, Fleischer has been mentioned in connection with the case before. Bloomberg reported earlier this week that "people familiar with the inquiry" were saying that Fitzgerald was reviewing Fleischer's testimony, "though it is not clear whether the prosecutor is focusing on him or seeking information about higher-ups." Fleischer refused to comment when Bloomberg contacted him. According to the Los Angeles Times, Fleischer has denied leaking Plame's name before -- and on this point, perhaps it bears noting that Karl Rove used to deny leaking Plame's name, too.

How would Fleischer have known about Plame's identity? Here's how Think Progress connects the dots:

Shortly after Joseph Wilson published his New York Times Op-Ed -- but before Novak's column first appeared -- Fleischer accompanied Bush and then Secretary of State Colin Powell on a trip to Africa. Newsweek's Michael Isikoff tells CNN that Powell took a classified report with him on that trip, and that the report contained information about Plame's job at the CIA.

Federal investigators have questioned Fleischer about the Plame case, the Associated Press reported in February 2004. And as Newsday has reported, Fitzgerald has shown an interest in the activities of the White House press office during the Africa trip. Fitzgerald served a subpoena seeking a transcript of a press briefing Fleischer gave in Africa, one in which he criticized Wilson as a "lower-level official" who had made flawed and incomplete statements. And, as Knight Ridder has reported, Fitzgerald has sought phone records from Air Force One "to determine whether presidential aides used the aircraft's phones to leak" Plame's name.

Is all that enough to convict the president's former spokesman? Not even close. But does it show that Fleischer had an interest in discrediting Joe Wilson and at least potential access to the information he might have used to do so? You bet. Put his name on the list.

By Tim Grieve

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

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