Is the Plame leak conspiracy unraveling?

The prosecutor in the Plame case seems to be investigating the cover-up, not the leak.

Published July 25, 2005 2:05PM (EDT)

As we were just saying, we don't know much about John Roberts. And the mystery, of course, is by design: Roberts' inscrutability is sure to come in handy during his confirmation hearings later this summer. Just at the moment, though, the enigma presents something of a problem for the White House. Roberts may be shaping up to be too uncontroversial -- even boring -- for the White House's liking. The administration, remember, rushed to announce Roberts' nomination in an apparent attempt to distract everyone from that other big thing we were all talking about last week. But already -- less than a week after the Roberts pick -- the media is back to talking about that other thing. And the talk is getting louder, and scarier, for the administration.

That other thing, to jog your memory, is the investigation over whether Bush aides leaked to reporters the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame in order to punish her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, for telling the truth about WMD in Africa. "The president would have had to nominate Bill Clinton to change this subject," columnist Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times on Sunday. Rich also pointed out a helpful bit of detail about the investigation's timeline. At 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, the White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales -- he's now the attorney general -- was notified that the Justice Department had launched a criminal investigation into the Plame leak. But Gonzales waited until the next morning to warn the White House staff to "preserve all materials" relevant to the inquiry. Rich -- and, now, some Senate Democrats -- wonder: Could the White House have begun to cover its tracks in those 12 hours?

Gonzales appeared on CBS's "Face The Nation" on Sunday, and though he was there to talk about John Roberts, what made the news today was his explanation for why he waited a day to issue his notification. That explanation: everyone at the Justice Department, he said, had gone home by the time he received the news. Gonzales said that he did tell Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, about the inquiry immediately. And "the next morning, I told the president. And shortly thereafter, there was notification sent out to all the members of the White House staff," he said.

What happened in those 12 hours may turn out to be important, as according to several press reports it now appears that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel appointed to investigate the Plame leak, is not as interested in the leak as he is in the cover-up. As a new report in Newsweek shows, Fitzgerald asked NBC's Tim Russert to testify to the grand jury not because he cared what the White House told Russert, but instead what Russert told the White House. Karl Rove or Lewis Libby have said that they first heard about Plame from reporters -- but Russert and other reporters, as Bloomberg also reported last week, have told the grand jury different stories.

For the last word on this -- at least for the moment, anyway -- let's go back to Frank Rich: "The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds. Without it, there wouldn't have been a third-rate smear campaign against an obscure diplomat, a bungled cover-up and a scandal that -- like the war itself -- has no exit strategy that will not inflict pain."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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