The President passed through his State of the Union address — ill-digested chunks of so many other speeches he’s given (“We’re writing a new chapter in the story of self-government — with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan, and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink…) — largely untouched by the media. His two Supreme Court-changing appointments, Roberts and Alito, were triumphantly in the front row of the audience. Undoubtedly, it wasn’t a bad way for a besieged President to start year two of term two. Okay, maybe in distant Baghdad — “We’re on the offensive in Iraq, with a clear plan for victory” — things were actually looking a little peaked and, admittedly, the Bush wave of freedom in the Middle East had just swept Islamic fundamentalists into control of the Palestinian Authority, but all in all the President had reason to feel at least some satisfaction. And yet there lurks a presidential problem of administration-staggering proportions that few are even thinking about at the moment.
Quietly, largely below the radar screen, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald continues to work on the CIA leak case in which the administration decided to punish ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson for embarrassing them on Saddam’s nonexistent search for yellowcake uranium by outing his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent. News on the case has been sparse indeed of late. I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, indicted former chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, crept back into the papers this week on a fishing expedition for CIA documents; while a single, shades-of-Watergate sentence in a brief report by James Gordon Meek in the New York Daily News indicated that “Fitzgerald… said in a letter to Libby’s lawyers that many e-mails from Cheney’s office at the time of the Plame leak in 2003 have been deleted contrary to White House policy.” (The letter can be found at the Raw Story website.) Meanwhile, not so long ago in an investigative report at the Truthout website, the fine Internet reporter Jason Leopold indicated that Fitzgerald “has been questioning witnesses in the CIA leak case about the origins of the disputed Niger documents referenced in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address.”
Still, the case, having largely disappeared into the media void, has something of the look of yet another danger dodged by an administration with at least nine lives. Well, don’t let the relative silence surrounding Fitzgerald fool you. As former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega indicates below, the Special Counsel is working on another time schedule than that of administration officials. So, in due course, expect fireworks out of his office that will first illuminate the role of Karl Rove in the case and then may well light up a far wider stretch of the horizon. ~ Tom
When Two Worlds Collide: Rove v. Fitzgerald
By Elizabeth de la Vega
For Karl Rove, no news from the Plame case — Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s grand jury investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity as a CIA agent — is definitely not good news. Seismic activity is notoriously silent, so we may not be hearing any rumblings at the moment. But speaking as a former prosecutor, I believe it highly likely that, just below the surface, the worlds of Karl Rove and Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, shifting like tectonic plates, are about to collide. As was true with Vice President Cheney’s top aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a federal agent as well as to the grand jury, Rove might not be charged with the leak itself. I am confident, however, that Rove will not leave this party empty-handed. He will, at the very least, almost certainly be charged with making false statements to an FBI agent. Here’s why.
For starters, the evidence that Rove deliberately lied to the FBI is overwhelming.
In case anyone’s forgotten, on July 14, 2003, eight days after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson in an op-ed in the New York Times publicly questioned Bush’s claim that Iraq had tried to acquire “yellowcake” uranium in Africa, columnist Robert Novak wrote that “two senior administration officials” had told him the trip to Niger, which Wilson referenced in that piece, had been arranged by his wife Valerie, whom the officials described as a CIA operative assigned to investigate matters involving weapons of mass destruction.
It is now undisputed that Karl Rove spoke with at least two reporters about Valerie Wilson before Novak’s now infamous article appeared: Novak himself (whom Rove has known for 30 years) and Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper. Some details of the discussion with Cooper are in dispute, but there’s no question that the two men discussed Valerie Wilson’s identity as a CIA agent and the administration’s claim that she had arranged her husband’s trip to Niger. After the conversation, Rove sent an e-mail about it to then Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Rove’s aide Susan Ralston has reportedly testified that Rove told her not to log in the phone call, although that was the usual office procedure. On July 17, Cooper wrote an article in which he described conversations with two government officials who claimed Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent and had arranged Wilson’s trip to Africa. Cooper questioned whether the administration was declaring war on Wilson.
Between July 14 and October 8, when Rove was interviewed by the FBI, the Bush administration held approximately 30 press briefings in which the leak and/or the Iraq-Niger uranium allegations were discussed. There were hundreds of news articles and repeated calls for an investigation by congressmen, columnists, and the CIA.
By mid-September, Karl Rove was increasingly being named as one of the “two senior administration officials” who blew Wilson’s cover and Bush’s press officer Scott McClellan was facing ever more insistent questions about Rove’s involvement. On September 16, McClellan said that “it was ridiculous” to suggest Rove was the leaker. On the morning of September 29, McClellan announced that “the President knows Rove is not involved.” From that date to October 8, when Rove was interviewed, Bush and McClellan were specifically questioned about Rove’s possible role on ten separate occasions. On October 7, Rove and other White House staffers were required to provide investigators with all documents relating to any contacts they had had with reporters about Joseph Wilson, his trip to Niger, or his wife, Valerie Wilson.
As has now been widely reported, when Karl Rove spoke to FBI agents, he specifically told them that he had not spoken to any reporters about Joseph Wilson’s wife before Novak’s article appeared.
Given the almost seamless press coverage of the leak during the preceding three months, the time and effort that the White House was devoting to the issue, as well as the intensifying focus on whether he himself had leaked the information, it is impossible to believe that, on October 8, Karl Rove — known for his brilliance, attention to detail, and legendary memory — did not remember those two conversations with reporters about Valerie Wilson. If Rove told the FBI agents otherwise, it was surely a deliberate lie.
According to reports, Rove then added that he had first heard about Valerie Wilson from a reporter, though he did not remember which reporter or when he heard it. He also said that he had enlisted the aid of the Republican National Committee and conservative news agencies among other groups to spread disparaging information about Joseph Wilson and his wife, but only after Novak’s article appeared.
Rove’s elaboration not only compounded his initial lie but also illuminated the world of politics that he has been incapable of leaving behind — a world that collides head-on with the one Patrick Fitzgerald inhabits, where politics have no place and where laws, and the highest standards of public service, prevail.
Despite his measured words, Fitzgerald revealed much about his worldview in the press conference in which he announced Libby’s indictment. He said that the investigation was serious because the disclosure of classified information about a CIA officer could jeopardize national security. But equally serious — and he repeated this more than once — was the betrayal of government employees by their own officials. Anyone who has worked as a federal prosecutor for two decades, as has Fitzgerald, has also worked closely, often late and long hours, with law enforcement agents, so it is not surprising perhaps that when asked about the damage caused by the leak, Fitzgerald offered the following:
“I can say that for the people who work at the CIA and work at other places, they have to expect that when they do their jobs that classified information will be protected. And they have to expect that when they do their job, that information about whether or not they are affiliated with the CIA will be protected. And they run a risk when they work for the CIA that something bad could happen to them, but they have to make sure that they don’t run the risk that something bad is going to happen to them from something done by their own fellow employees.”
Over and over again, in that same press conference, Fitzgerald demonstrated his belief that if you sign onto a system that has certain rules, you have to follow those rules even if it might be personally advantageous to break them. Those who tuned in saw reporters repeatedly ask him about information he could not reveal without violating the rules of grand jury secrecy or prosecutorial ethics. He was asked, for example, whether other people might be charged. He declined to answer. He was asked to evaluate the strength of the case. He declined to answer. He acknowledged how frustrating his inability to answer undoubtedly was to the assembled media, but explained that he couldn’t gather information according to the rules of grand jury secrecy — which prohibit talking about people who were investigated but not charged with a crime — and then afterwards reveal the information anyway because it was too “inconvenient” not to answer reporters’ questions.
Later in the press conference, he said simply, “All I can do is make sure that myself and our team follow the rules.”
Fitzgerald’s world is far removed from the world of expediency and personal advantage in which Karl Rove operates. In his carefully crafted statements during the FBI interview on October 8, Rove indicated an obvious belief that he could get away with spreading information about government employees for political purposes as long as someone else had revealed that information first, regardless of whether or not the information was disparaging or classified. He did not appear to be concerned with where the information came from, or even whether it was true.
Although it is astounding that Rove would blatantly describe such a despicable ethos (if you can call it that), it should not have been unexpected. In the world of campaign politics that Rove has so long inhabited, smears and personal attacks are designed to seem as if they were spontaneously generated. They can then wander around, undirected, until they finally curl up in America’s living rooms like so many mysterious, uninvited guests. These intruders may be rude and destructive, but no one is supposed to be able to get rid of them, in part because no one is supposed to be able to sort out or pinpoint how they got there in the first place. Thus, although Karl Rove has lurked in the background of an unprecedented number of whisper and smear campaigns — that, for instance, John McCain had an illegitimate child (a rumor spread during the Republican primaries that preceded the 2000 election), or that former Texas Governor Ann Richards was a lesbian (a persistent rumor that was spread during Bush’s Texas gubernatorial campaign) — he has never been held accountable. And that is a state of affairs to which Rove became accustomed.
Rove has escaped responsibility for his sneaky campaign tricks because the candidates for whom he has worked — most prominently, George Bush — have had a stunning ability to accept, unquestioningly, the miraculous appearance of information that takes down their opponents. They had no problem about endorsing brazen dishonesty or the least interest in ferreting out bad actors in their camps. At the same time, opposing candidates have had neither the resources, nor the time to fully investigate the attacks before plummeting in the polls. Afterwards, of course, it was already far too late.
Unlike Rove’s former adversaries in the political world, however, Fitzgerald has both the time and investigative resources. When Fitzgerald was appointed special prosecutor, all the known facts on the outing of Valerie Wilson indicated that government officials had broken the rules, if not the law. It’s no surprise then that Fitzgerald has pursued the matter vigorously; nor should it be a surprise that Rove’s statement to the FBI on October 8 would have raised some obvious red flags and caused Fitzgerald to become skeptical. Rove deliberately omitted key information about conversations with reporters that he could not possibly have forgotten; he claimed to have heard classified government information only from a reporter — despite the fact that he himself was one of the highest government officials in the nation; and then he admitted that he had no qualms about enlisting surrogates to betray government employees in order to achieve political gain.
Rove’s statement raised more questions than answers. It also opened a window into the world of a President’s key adviser who never left campaign mode and who had never before been tripped up, no matter what he did. Such a man would be quite unprepared for an investigator like Fitzgerald who operates under a very different timetable and in a world ordered by radically different rules.
Now that Rove’s statement has been shown to be so obviously false, it would be most surprising if when his world and Fitzgerald’s collide, the result isn’t a political earthquake. The moment an earthquake arrives remains impossible to predict, but it would be surprising if, in the CIA leak case, the impact of a Rove indictment did not cause massive aftershocks.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Elizabeth de la Vega [send her mail] is a former federal prosecutor with more than 20 years of experience. During her tenure, she was a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Chief of the San Jose Branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California. Her pieces have appeared in the Nation Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon.