First Rove, then Libby. Who's next?

Two of the three officials Scott McClellan exonerated have now been implicated in the Valerie Plame leak.

Published July 18, 2005 1:17PM (EDT)

At press briefings in the fall of 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan dismissed questions about the role administration officials played in the outing of Valerie Plame as if they were the tinfoil-hat fantasies of partisan conspiracy theorists. "Unfortunately, in Washington, D.C., at a time like this, there are a lot of rumors and innuendo," McClellan complained to reporters at a briefing on Oct. 7, 2003. "There are unsubstantiated accusations that are made. And that's exactly what happened in the case of these three individuals."

Those "three individuals" were Karl Rove, Scooter Libby and Elliott Abrams. McClellan said he had "no doubt" that they weren't involved in the Plame leak, but that he'd checked with each of them personally because "I like to check my information to make sure it's accurate before I report back to you." But with respect to at least two of the three, McClellan's information wasn't "accurate." It was that other thing: inaccurate -- not true, false, maybe a lie.

Last week, we learned that Rove spread the Plame story to at least two reporters: He told Time's Matthew Cooper that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, and he confirmed that fact for Chicago Sun-Times columnist Bob Novak. Over the weekend, we learned that Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, engaged in similar handiwork: The day after Cooper spoke with Rove, the Time reporter says, Libby confirmed for him the story that Rove had spun.

If McClellan is surprised by these revelations, he shouldn't be. As the Los Angeles Times reports today, top aides to both the president and the vice president were "intensely focused" on discrediting Wilson after he wrote an Op-Ed piece in which he criticized the administration for its misuse of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. "A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House," the Times says. "When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove reportedly responded: 'He's a Democrat.'"

It wasn't just Rove, of course. As Newsweek lays it out, the White House counterattack against Wilson came from all corners of the administration: Then press secretary Ari Fleischer trashed the Wilson Op-Ed; Fleischer and Dan Bartlett "prompted clusters of reporters to look into the bureaucratic origins" of Wilson's trip to Niger; on "transatlantic secure phone calls," made while Bush, Fleischer, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials were in Africa, "the message machinery focused on a crucial topic: Who should carry the freight on the following Sunday's talk shows?" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice got the job, and White House officials assembled and then faxed to the Bush entourage a "top secret" briefing book so that Rice would be prepared to speak when she returned to the United States. As Newsweek's Howard Fineman notes, "No one in the administration seems to have noticed the irony -- or the legal danger -- in assembling a "top secret" briefing book as guidance for the Sunday talk shows."

As for McClellan, well, if you believe what he says, you've got to conclude that he didn't notice much of anything. Everyone around him was involved in the work of discrediting Joseph Wilson. Two of the three administration officials who he said were "not involved" in outing Plame had in fact been deeply involved in just that. And yet at that Oct. 7 press briefing -- the one at which he said, "I speak for the president" -- McClellan left reporters with the impression that the White House knew nothing at all. Asked if the president, McClellan or someone else in the administration told senior staff members "to find out who the leaker is," McClellan told reporters that they should "keep in mind that there has been no information brought to our attention, beyond what's in the media reports, to suggest that there was White House involvement."

That wasn't true, either. It's now clear beyond any doubt that there was plainly "White House involvement." As a new week begins, the question is, "How much?"

By Tim Grieve

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

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