The circle of Plame gets wider

A source close to the investigation says Patrick Fitzgerald appears to be focused on perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators.

Published July 19, 2005 1:26PM (EDT)

George W. Bush raised the bar Monday when he said that he would fire anyone who "committed a crime" in the Valerie Plame case; both Bush and his spokesman -- who says all the time, "I speak for the president" -- had previously said that the president would fire anyone involved in leaking Valerie Plame's name, without insisting that proof of a crime be shown first.

But in a sense, Bush did something more than raise the bar Monday; he broadened the field of competitors who might clear it. Although the question of who leaked Plame's name remains a central component of the scandal -- and more on that in a moment -- it's becoming more and more clear that the identity of the leaker isn't the centerpiece of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation.

It's not the crime, it's the coverup.

A former Justice Department official who is in frequent contact with people involved in the Plame case tells the Washington Post that he believes Fitzgerald is focusing on what came after the leak rather than the leak itself. "I think he made his decisions months ago that there wasn't a crime when the leak occurred," the former official said. "Now, he's looking at a coverup: perjury, obstruction of justice, false statements to an FBI agent."

Any number of administration officials could be on the hook if Fitzgerald were to bring those sorts of charges: You don't have to be a leaker to be a liar. Did Karl Rove lie about his involvement in the leak when he appeared before the grand jury or when he spoke with federal investigators? Did Rove or Scooter Libby obstruct justice when they told -- if they told -- Scott McClellan that they weren't involved in the Plame leak? Was McClellan obstructing justice when he spread stories about the case from the White House press room -- stories that we know now to be false? And where was Dick Cheney, anyway?

These are the known unknowns, at least so long as the grand jury's proceedings remain shrouded in whatever secrecy still surrounds them. In the meantime, we can all continue to wonder about the question that may ultimately be less important: If Karl Rove was Robert Novak's second source, who was the first?

As we noted last week, you can connect the dots in a way that gets you a drawing of Ari Fleischer's face. A couple of new clues are now filling in that sketch a little more. First, the New York Times, relying on a source "who has been involved in the investigation," says that Fleischer's White House phone log shows that Novak called Fleischer on July 7, 2003 -- the day after Joseph Wilson's Op-Ed piece appeared in the New York Times. Novak has said that Wilson's Op-Ed left him "curious why a high-ranking official in President Bill Clinton's National Security Council was given this assignment," and that he put that question to a "senior administration official," who told him that Wilson had been assigned to the case by his wife, a CIA employee.

It's still not clear whether Fleischer was that "senior administration official." Indeed, as the Times says, it's not even clear from the phone records whether Fleischer returned Novak's call, "or, if he did, what he said." A source tells the Washington Post that Fleischer has told investigators he did not return Novak's call.

This much does seem clear, however: Fleischer was at the very least in a position to know about Plame's role as a CIA agent. Together with Bush, then Secretary of State Colin Powell and then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Fleischer boarded Air Force One later in the day on July 7, 2003, for a trip to Africa. A "former administration official" tells Bloomberg that Fleischer was seen on the plane perusing a State Department memo that said Plame had a role in sending her husband to Niger.

By Tim Grieve

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

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