A primer for the Karl Rove / Valerie Plame scandal.
The Introduction You Can Feel Free To Skip
This is not a political blog, and I imagine that a large percentage of my readers don’t read political blogs on a regular basis. If you do, this probably doesn’t contain any information you don’t already know (assuming you are up-to-date with the latest bombshell.)
For the rest of you, I want to give you a primer on the whole Karl Rove / Valerie Plame thing you may have been hearing about. Not because I happen to think it’s a huge story, but because it’s slowly turning into a real, juicy political scandal of the sort you’d expect to find in a David Baldacci novel, complete with surprise twists, double-crosses, and an honest-to-goodness spy.
It’s been very entertaining to watch the whole thing unfold, because information has been coming out in dribs and drabs, like a fireworks show with big pauses in it. Every once in a while there’s a big, flashy explosion followed by a lengthy silence, and just as you say “well, I guess it’s over” and start to get out of of your lawn chair: poom! here comes the next round. And it looks as though things are going to get more interesting yet.
But the downside to the “dribs and drabs” aspect of this drama is that it has been going on for nearly three years, and most of the recent articles assume you know the whole backstory. You can get an exhaustive account of the story over at Wikipedia: Valerie Plame. This is intended to be a brief primer for those who are only now joining the fun, and just want the Cliff’s Notes for the imbroglio.
First, though, let’s get this out of the way. Disclaimer: I do not like the Bush administration, and I don’t like Karl Rove. So I’m feeling no small amount of schadenfreude as I watch all this come down the pike. There’s my bias, right up front. That said, I will try to stick to the facts, except where I specifically cite something as speculation. If you feel like I have a fact wrong, drop me a line or let me know in the comments.
The Back Story
In early 2002 the CIA was trying to verify a report that Niger had sold uranium-enriched yellowcake to Iraq in the late 1990s. They asked former ambassador Joseph Wilson to travel to Niger and check out the story. He did so in February of 2002, and, upon returning a month later, told the CIA that the story was likely bogus.
The matter was presumed settled until September 2002, when a “white paper” used by the British Government stated the yellowcake story as fact. Then, in the State of the Union speech of January, 2003, Bush referenced this document, saying, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As yellowcake can be used to create WMDs, this claim was central to Bush’s case for war.
The invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003.
Wilson publicly denounced the “uranium from Africa” line in the months following the State of the Union speech. On July 6, 2003, The New York Times carried an article by Wilson called “What I Didn’t Find In Africa“; of the yellowcake rumor, he wrote “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”
On July 14, 2003, columnist Robert Novak wrote about the Bush / Wilson, he-said / he-said dispute in the article “Mission To Niger” “Wilson never worked for the CIA,” wrote Novak, “but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger.”
Two days after Novak’s column appeared, David Corn of The Nation led an article entitled “A White House Smear” with the lines
Did senior Bush officials blow the cover of a US intelligence officer working covertly in a field of vital importance to national security — and break the law — in order to strike at a Bush administration critic and intimidate others? It sure looks that way, if conservative journalist Bob Novak can be trusted.
By identifying Wilson’s wife as “an Agency operative,” Novak had apparently blown her cover. And if, as Novak stated, the information came from “senior administration officials,” they (the officials) may have run afoul of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which makes it a felony for persons with access to it classified information to knowingly reveal the identity of covert agents.
Wilson alleged that the White House had outed his wife as retribution for his whistleblowing. Others speculate that the purpose of the leak was to discredit Wilson by implying that his trip was just a gig his wife managed to get him. Whatever the reason, Wilson thought he knew the source: during a roundtable discussion in August of 2003, Wilson said, of the leak, “At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words.”
In the wake of this comment, speculation grew that Rove, George Bush’s senior political adviser, was behind the leak. When asked about the possibility, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said “I haven’t heard that. That’s just totally ridiculous.” A few days later McClellan went even farther when asked if Bush had personally asked Rove if he was behind the leak. “[Rove] wasn’t involved,” McClellan said. “The President knows he wasn’t involved.”
At the end of September 2003 the Justice Department announced a full-scale investigation into the leak.
And then nothing seemed to happen for months: no findings were announced, and it was unclear how the investigation was progressing, or if it was progressing at all. Some felt that, with Ashcroft both Attorney General and friend to Bush, he would simply put the kibosh on the whole thing. For folks like myself, who had been following the story with interest, this seemed like the end of the line. My guess was that they would stall for a few months or years and then quietly announce, at 4:35 on a Friday afternoon, that they had been unable find the culprit. And that would be that.
But then a couple of surprising things happened.
First, Ashcroft recused himself from the case in December 2003. When US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald replaced Ashcroft on the investigation, one of his first acts was to subpoena the phone records of Air Force One. Suddenly the story was back in the news, albeit on page A13.
When asked about the case in February, 2004, Bush said “If there’s a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is … if the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of.”
Fitzgerald continued to work on the investigation throughout 2004. Bush was interviewed in June; various reporters were hauled in front of the grand jury over the course of the year and either testified or held their tongues.
In an August 2004 CNN interview, Rove said of Plame “I didn’t know her name and didn’t leak her name.” Note the wording.
Rove himself testified before the jury in October. Then came the election of 2004, and the story (again) appeared to have ended with a whimper.
Reveal Your Sources
Robert Novak was not the only person to have had Valerie Plame’s name whispered into his ear — he was just the first to put it into print. In fact, a number of journalists were told of Plame’s identity in early July of 2003. For instance, a piece for TIME Magazine called “A War on Wilson?” published on July 17, 2003 (three days after Novak’s column) said “some government officials have noted to TIME in interviews … that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” The lead writer on that story was a reporter by the name of Matthew Cooper.
Cooper refused to reveal his source to the grand jury investigating the Plame leak, in defiance of a subpena from Fitzgerald. For this he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In an effort to save him (presumably), TIME Magazine — saying that it was not bound by its reporters’ confidentially agreements — turned over Cooper’s notes to Fitzgerald, thereby revealing his source. Fitzgerald, however, insisted that Cooper personally testify or go to jail. Cooper again refused and prepared for the pokey.
Then on July 10 of this year, days before he was to go to prison, Cooper suddenly reversed himself and said that he would testify after all. “A short time ago, in somewhat dramatic fashion, I received an express personal release from my source,” Cooper said of his abrupt change of heart.
Cooper (and Cooper’s notes) identified the source of the leak as Karl Rove.
Two big developments today.
Those of us rooting for Rove’s downfall were a little discouraged when we heard that Cooper had received “express personal release from my source” to testify. After all, if Rove said “go ahead,” he must not have considered himself to be in too much trouble. Today, however, we learned that Cooper’s “release from my source” did not, in fact, come from his source at all.
Rove long ago signed a blanket waiver, given to him by Fitzgerald, saying that reporters were free to discuss any conversations they had with him about the Plame leak. Cooper, however, concluded that Rove was coerced into signing this waiver (after all, in refusing to do so he would have outed himself as the leaker) and his oath of confidentiality was still in force. So what changed? Well, apparently The Wall Street Journal spoke with Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, last week. Here’s an excerpt from the resultant article:
Mr. Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, last week denied that Mr. Rove had contacted Mr. Cooper last Wednesday, and said that when Mr. Rove spoke to Mr. Cooper two years ago, “Karl didn’t disclose Valerie Plame’s identification to anyone. That’s not a technical statement. That’s as practical and direct as I can make it.” He also told The Wall Street Journal that Mr. Rove had never asked any reporter to treat him as a confidential source in the matter, “so if Matt Cooper is going to jail to protect a source, it’s not Karl he’s protecting.”
In other words, Luskin said (a) Rove signed a blanket waiver a while ago authorizing Cooper to reveal if he was the source; (b) Cooper is not revealing his source; therefore (c) Rove cannot be the leaker.
Cooper apparently decided that if Luskin’s statement were true, then the inverse was also true: “if it is Karl Rove I’m protecting then I guess I don’t have to go to jail, and can safely blab.” Or perhaps Cooper was pissed that Luskin had flat-out lied. Or perhaps Cooper just really, really didn’t want to go to jail and chickened out. Who knows?
The other big development today is that the White House has completely clammed up about the issue. Check out this video of Scott McClellan using 340 words to say “no comment” over and over again.
Crime and Punishment
So what’s the upshot to all this? Is Rove going to be “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs?”
In a word, no. Or, if he is, it probably won’t be for outing Valerie Plame. Fitzgerald would have to show that Rove knew she was a covert agent when he told Cooper she worked for the CIA, and that might be tricky.
If Fitzgerald nails Rove for anything, it will likely be for perjury — stating, under oath in front of the investigation’s grand jury, that he did not reveal Plame’s name to anyone. But we, the public, have no idea what Rove said during that testimony, and many find it hard to believe that Rove would have risked a perjury charge by fibbing.
In fact, we don’t even know if Rove is the target of Fitzgerald investigation at all — he might just be collateral damage. Remember, Novak said there were two government sources, and (unless I’ve missed something) we still don’t know the identity of #2 (assuming there even is a #2). Maybe Fitzgerald is circling in on this guy.
It seems likely that Fitzgerald has something — otherwise he wouldn’t have been such a hardass with Cooper. But what it is, exactly, that Fitzgerald knows (or thinks he knows) remains a mystery, and its eventual revelation will be yet another surprise in an already bizarre case.
So there you go — now you’re up to date and can enjoy the show with the rest of us. Cheers!