Karl Rove, Jason Leopold and the hunt for the truth

Is a story of Rove's indictment premature? Who's to blame, and how did we get here?

Published May 16, 2006 4:54PM (EDT)

We don't know whether Karl Rove will be indicted today, tomorrow, later this week or never. But we do understand that there's a distinction between Truthout's Jason Leopold and the bloggers who've been writing about him, and that gives us at least one leg up on the folks at the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal's Anne Marie Squeo checks in today on Leopold's report that Rove has already been indicted in the Valerie Plame case, and she uses her story as an occasion for a little blog-bashing. Squeo says that bloggers have "blurred the lines with traditional media and changed both the dynamics of the reporting process and how political rumors swirl," and she quotes Jay Rosen for the proposition that the blogosphere has a "let's see if this holds up" philosophy when it comes to news.

Just two problems here: Leopold isn't reporting on Plamegate as a blogger, and the blogosphere -- or at least the part of it we respect -- hasn't taken anything like a "let's see if this holds up" approach to his latest report. While some liberal bloggers jumped immediately on Leopold's Rove "scoop" Saturday, many others looked at the story through more cautious eyes.

TalkLeft followed up with interviews of Rove's spokesman, Rove's lawyer and Leopold himself. A poster at the Next Hurrah set forth evidence that Leopold had once adopted several identities to respond to a blog post about one of his stories. Posters at a number of sites debated Leopold's credibility; in one late-night thread at Democratic Underground, a poster who identified himself as Truthout's William Rivers Pitt defended Leopold's story by claiming that Joseph Wilson himself was one of his sources. The poster seems to have deleted the post, but it lives on at DailyKos. (In an interview, Truthout's Marc Ash declined to comment on the post because it concerned the site's anonymous sources.)

In the essay that launched the Democratic Underground thread, Peter Daou, whose Daou Report appears on Salon, worried that Leopold might be used -- hello, WSJ! -- "as a cudgel to flog the progressive netroots as a bunch of conspiracy nuts."

The Huffington Post, for which Leopold used to write, has taken an arm's length approach to his latest story with a Mark Kleiman post that said Leopold's report was "highly circumstantial." Raw Story, where Leopold wrote back when his Plamegate stories were getting more unquestioning coverage from other blogs, refrained from excerpting from or linking to Leopold's latest at all.

Some liberal bloggers have followed suit. "Please stop sending me emails about Rove supposedly being indicted," Americablog's John Aravosis wrote Sunday afternoon. "I don't mean to knock anyone's reporting, but if Rove were indicted 36 hours ago, I think we'd all have heard about it by now. If I'm wrong, then my sincere apologies to those who got the scoop -- but at this point, my pointy foil hat is saying 'bull.'"

So if the liberal blogs have reached any sort of consensus on Leopold's account of Rove's indictment, it seems to be somewhere between "this doesn't add up" and "I don't know what the truth is anymore." Which is to say, not a lot of bloggers are simply throwing the Leopold story on the wall, then sitting back to "see if it holds up."

We're certainly not.

Salon and Leopold have an unhappy history. Salon took down a piece Leopold wrote for the site in 2002 after the editors concluded that some of it had been copied from the Financial Times and weren't able to substantiate a key piece of Leopold's reporting. Leopold stands by his story and says Salon did wrong by him. Both he and Salon's editors have aired their sides in public.

We have no firsthand knowledge of that episode, having arrived on Salon's staff long after it happened. But we've been skeptical of Leopold's Plamegate reporting anyway.

Some of our skepticism stems from Leopold's reports of his own troubled past. Leopold has told us, "Just because I have a past or made a mistake does not mean I am unable to cultivate sources or continue reporting."

Some of our skepticism comes from what seems like a too-good-to-be-true quality in Leopold's reporting: As Daou asks, "How is Leopold the only reporter in America with access" to the sources he claims to have? Leopold has told us that he has "really, really good sources" who have been "dead on" when it comes to Plamegate news.

And some of our skepticism comes from Leopold reporting that hasn't panned out. When we wrote in December 2005 that we thought some of Leopold's work for Raw Story was implausible, Raw Story editor John Byrne posted a response in which he defended much of Leopold's reporting but said that three stories hadn't been confirmed: a report that Cheney aide John Hannah was "given orders by higher-ups in Cheney's office to leak Plame's covert status and identity in an attempt to muzzle Wilson"; a report involving the Plamegate role allegedly played by Rove assistant Susan Ralston; and a story published days before Scooter Libby was indicted that said that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had asked the grand jury to indict Rove; that Fitzgerald had asked the grand jury to indict Libby on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and outing Plame; and that two other government officials were likely to be indicted as well. When Libby was indicted the following Friday -- not that Wednesday or Thursday, as Leopold's reporting had predicted -- Libby wasn't charged with outing Plame, Rove wasn't indicted at all, and there was no sign of the two mystery officials.

Leopold hasn't written for Raw Story since January -- Byrne declined to comment on his departure, saying he couldn't discuss "personnel matters" -- but questions about the reporter's work have followed him to Truthout. Leopold's reporting for the site has sometimes been at odds with reports in the mainstream press or statements from Rove's camp. That's not conclusive evidence of anything one way or the other: The mainstream press can be lazy and sometimes willfully blind, and Rove has allowed or encouraged lies about his Plamegate role to be disseminated before. But add these discrepancies to everything else, and it's hard not to have doubts about Leopold's work.

In an April story for Truthout, Leopold reported that Fitzgerald had just met with his grand jury and presented "additional evidence" against Rove. At least one report put Fitzgerald in Chicago on the day that Leopold had him meeting with the grand jury in Washington, and subsequent press reports said a later Fitzgerald meeting with the grand jury appeared to be his first in 2006. Leopold's response? The fact that other reporters might not have seen Fitzgerald at the grand jury doesn't mean that he wasn't there.

In another Truthout story in April, Leopold reported that Fitzgerald had sent Rove lawyer Robert Luskin a letter telling him that Rove was a "target" of the Plame investigation. We reported Rove's spokesman's denial and asked Leopold for a response. His answer: A letter isn't the only way to notify someone that he's a target. Fair enough, but Leopold had reported -- in the very first sentence of his story -- that Fitzgerald sent Rove a "target letter." When we reminded Leopold of that fact, he said that he stood by his reporting in the Plame investigation and that "the end result will tell the full story."

"Stay tuned for Friday," Leopold told us in an e-mail message. That was three weeks ago; the Friday in question -- the one for which we were supposed to "stay tuned" -- came and went with no further proof that Leopold was right about the "target letter" he said that Rove's lawyer had received.

We contacted Leopold again this week when Rove's spokesman denied his most recent story in interviews with the New York Sun and Byron York of the National Review. We asked Leopold the following questions:

  • Are you standing by the story? And by "the story," I don't mean that Rove's indictment is imminent, but rather the story that you reported: that Rove has already been indicted, that Fitzgerald met with Luskin for "about 15 hours" Friday, that Fitzgerald "served" Rove's attorneys with a copy of an indictment, and that Fitzgerald told Luskin that Rove had "24 hours" to get his affairs in order.

  • If you're standing by the story, can you shed any light on why your report is so different than the characterization Rove's spokesman is offering?

  • TalkLeft says you claim to have spoken four times with Rove spokesman Mark Corallo over the weekend. Corallo tells TalkLeft that he's never spoken to anyone who identified himself as "Jason Leopold." Corallo seems to be suggesting that you may have identified yourself as someone named "Joel" from the Sunday Times of London. Can you explain?

Leopold didn't answer any of the questions. This is what he said instead:

"Call anyone else besides Corallo, Luskin? Have you ever tried to go beyond the spokesman for a story? Did you call [Fitzgerald spokesman Randall] Samborn? Have you tried to find out where Rove was Friday? Did you call the White House? Did you do any digging? No, you didn't. Call the White House. Find out where Rove was.

"And get your facts in order. Luskin carefully parsed his statement last month in writing saying that he was informed that Rove was not a target pertaining to that grand jury session.

"Wow, the word of Byron York. A GOP shill who simply reports the White House line.

"Tim, you've made it abundantly clear how you want to treat me. I have no reason to respond to your queries when you already have the story laid out in your head."

Leopold and Truthout's Marc Ash have defended Leopold's latest story elsewhere, and Ash stood hard by the story when we talked to him today. He insisted that the grand jury has voted to indict Rove on charges of perjury and lying to federal investigators, that Fitzgerald showed Luskin such an indictment in the early morning hours Saturday, and that the grand jury is still considering whether to charge Rove with obstruction of justice as well. "There will be paperwork on this," Ash said, "and when that paperwork comes available, it will be dated." How can he be sure of Leopold's story? "We did our homework," Ash said. "We are correct, and we are standing on the eventual paperwork that will come out of this."

Maybe Ash is right. Maybe we'll learn this week that Leopold has been right all along. Maybe Fitzgerald really asked the grand jury to indict Rove last year; maybe Rove has already been indicted; maybe Fitzgerald really did spend "about 15" hours in Luskin's office Friday; maybe two other government officials really were indicted last year with Libby, and somehow we just haven't heard about it yet. Ash sure seemed confident when we talked to him. But we can't say that Leopold's nonresponse response to our questions was particularly reassuring. A good offense may be the best defense, but the truth is an even better one. Sooner or later, we'll know what it is.

By Tim Grieve

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

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