The ongoing controversy about who might have leaked the name of a covert CIA operative to journalists heated up Monday as reports about the possible involvement of President’s Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, dominated the daily White House news briefing and Democrats began to ratchet up their criticism of Rove.
Less than a week after one reporter went to jail for not revealing her source and two weeks after Time magazine’s corporate parent surrendered volumes of its reporter’s notes to a federal grand jury investigating the leak, the pot was stirred anew Sunday when Newsweek reported that Rove was the source for Time’s Matthew Cooper.
On Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who had previously defended Rove, repeatedly declined to comment on the case amid a barrage of questions from reporters.
Still, the new information about Rove’s role was emerging as a potential embarrassment for a White House that had scrupulously sought to avoid the kinds of investigations that plagued the Clinton administration.
It has also given Democrats a political issue.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, called for a congressional hearing, contending that the disclosure raised questions about “whether there was conspiracy with other White House staff to use classified information for the political purpose” of discrediting former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
Wilson -- whose wife, Valerie Plame, was the outed CIA operative -- had publicly questioned intelligence that Bush used in making the case for war against Iraq.
The grand jury is investigating whether anyone in the administration leaked Plame’s name to reporters. Deliberately disclosing the identity of a covert operative is a federal crime.
In September 2003, McClellan dismissed as “ridiculous” suggestions that Rove had been involved in the leak. “There is simply no truth to that suggestion,” he said. “And I have spoken with Karl about it.”
A month later, Bush was asked about the possible involvement of White House employees in the leak. “I want to know the truth,” the president said. “If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of.”
But on Monday, McClellan refused to discuss the matter. “The president directed the White House to cooperate fully with the investigation,” he said, “and as part of cooperating fully with the investigation, we made a decision that we weren’t going to comment on it while it is ongoing.”
Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, reiterated Monday that he believed his client had not engaged in any misconduct.
Republicans on Capitol Hill maintained a public silence. But a number of Democrats were quick to issue statements, though some responses were measured and noted that not all the facts were known.
“I agree with the president when he said he expects the people who work for him to adhere to the highest standards of conduct,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration. I trust they will follow through on this pledge. If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security.”
The sharpest criticisms came from some of the most partisan Democrats in Congress.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, his party’s presidential candidate last year, sent an e-mail to supporters calling on them to sign a “Fire Rove” online petition. “It’s perfectly clear that Rove -- the person at the center of the slash-and-burn, smear-and-divide tactics that have come to characterize the Bush administration -- has to go,” he wrote.
And Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter of New York called for Rove to be not only fired, but prosecuted as well. “There can be no gray area here, regardless of how he phrased it, regardless of how much detail he provided,” she said.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey called for Bush to suspend Rove’s security clearance, noting Rove’s criticism last month of liberals for what the Bush aide described as a tepid response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“Karl Rove has accused liberals of not understanding the consequences of 9/11, but he’s the one who blew the cover of a covert CIA agent,” Lautenberg said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean castigated the man Bush had called the architect of his reelection, saying in a statement that “Rove betrayed the identity of an undercover officer fighting on the front lines in the war on terror.... It is disturbing that this high-ranking Bush advisor is not only still working in the White House, but now has a significant role in setting our national security policy.”
In calling for a hearing, Waxman noted in a letter to the Government Reform Committee’s chairman, Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.), that Republicans would not have hesitated to do the same if there had been a similar allegation against a White House official during the Clinton administration. A Davis spokesman said the chairman was unavailable for comment.
The only Republican to issue a statement on the matter Monday was Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It’s disappointing that once again, so many Democrat leaders are taking their political cues from the far-left, MoveOn wing of the party,” he said, referring to the online advocacy group MoveOn.org. “The bottom line is the Democrats are engaged in blatant partisan political attacks.”
Legal experts said that, whatever the political fallout, Rove did not appear to have violated the federal law protecting covert agents. But they also said that many questions remained unanswered, such as whether Rove knew that Plame, who was working on weapons proliferation issues, was undercover and where he got his information about her.
Under the law, individuals can be prosecuted only if they know that the person they were disclosing was a covert agent, that the disclosure was made “intentionally,” and that the CIA was taking steps to protect the operative’s identity.
Monday’s wrangling concerned an e-mail, reported over the weekend by Newsweek, that Time reporter Matthew Cooper sent to his editors July 11, 2003, summing up a conversation he had that day with Rove.
The conversation came five days after Plame’s husband took the administration to task in an op-ed article in the New York Times for faulty intelligence about Iraq. His opinion piece was based on a trip he had taken to Africa at the behest of the CIA to explore whether Iraq was seeking to purchase weapons-grade uranium there.
According to Newsweek, Cooper and Rove discussed Wilson’s wife in the context of who at the CIA had been responsible for the trip. Cooper noted in the e-mail that Rove was trying to raise concerns about the credibility of Wilson’s report.
Cooper wrote his bosses that Rove offered him a “big warning” not to “get too far out on Wilson,” saying that the trip had not been authorized by senior officials.
Rather, “it was, KR said, [W]ilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency on [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized the trip,” the e-mail stated, according to Newsweek.
Luskin, Rove’s attorney, declined to confirm or deny the contents of the e-mail.
But Luskin said in an interview Monday that Rove never identified Plame by name and never intended to reveal her identity. He said Wilson’s wife came up as an afterthought in a conversation that Cooper had initiated, primarily for a story about welfare reform.
“The fair inference ... is that Rove was trying to warn Time ... away from perpetuating things that turned out to be false, and not try to encourage him to say anything about Wilson’s wife,” Luskin said.
Rove “was sharing what he knew but with the specific understanding it would not be disclosed,” Luskin added, noting that in the e-mail reported by Newsweek, Cooper wrote that he was speaking to Rove “on double super secret background.”
At the same time, Luskin declined to say whether Rove knew that Plame was a covert agent, even if he did not know her name, which analysts said was a crucial factor in determining whether the law was broken.
They also said that although Rove asserted he did not intend to disclose her identity, a jury might find otherwise based on other factors, such as whether he discussed Plame, even anonymously, with other reporters.
Plame was identified by name as a CIA employee in a July 14, 2003, column by journalist Robert Novak. Wilson has suggested that his wife’s identity was revealed in retaliation for his New York Times article.
Luskin declined to say whether Rove had discussed Plame with reporters, but said Rove had fully cooperated with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald and the grand jury probe. Luskin said Fitzgerald had assured Rove that he was not a target of the investigation.
Fitzgerald’s precise interest in Cooper’s conversation with Rove is unknown. Time had turned over Cooper’s notes, but Fitzgerald said that was insufficient. Cooper agreed to discuss the case last week, after Fitzgerald threatened to imprison him for refusing to testify about his dealings with an anonymous source, now acknowledged to be Rove. Several days after Novak’s column was published, Cooper helped write an article for Time’s website that said “administration officials” had told Time that Plame was a CIA official.
Cooper relented on talking about the anonymous source after he obtained what he said were additional assurances from Rove and his lawyers that he could discuss their conversation without violating confidentiality. He is expected to testify before a federal grand jury about his conversation with Rove soon, perhaps this week.
Although New York Times reporter Judith Miller never wrote about the matter, she was held in contempt and jailed for refusing to reveal confidential sources with whom she discussed the case. Unless she relents, which she has said she refuses to do, she will remain incarcerated until the grand jury’s term expires four months from now.