The answer to that mystery – why was Rove involved
– may be more crucial to unraveling who was behind the illegal leaking
of Plame’s name and the subsequent cover-up than even the identity of
which Bush officials passed the information to right-wing pundit Robert
Novak for his infamous column on July 14, 2003.
But rather than focusing on how and why Rove knew
about Plame, the latest controversy around the case has centered on
whether Rove explicitly used her name in an interview with Time magazine
reporter Matthew Cooper three days before Novak’s column.
Rove’s lawyer Robert Luskin told the Washington
Post that his client didn’t identify Plame by name, only mentioning her
in giving Cooper guidance about who was responsible for authorizing a
fact-finding trip by Plame’s husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph
Wilson, to Niger in February 2002. [Washington
Post, July 11, 2005]
According to an internal Time e-mail (obtained by
Newsweek), Cooper informed his editor that Rove offered a “big warning”
not to “get too far out on Wilson” and that “KR said” the Niger trip was
authorized by “wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency (CIA)
on wmd issues.” [Newsweek,
July 18, 2005, issue]
During Wilson’s 2002 trip to Niger, the
ex-ambassador discovered that claims about Iraq trying to buy yellowcake
uranium were almost certainly bogus. But Wilson’s findings – which were
later corroborated by United Nations officials – would remain
politically sensitive because they undercut Bush’s assertions about
Iraqi nuclear ambitions, a central rationale for invading Iraq in March
On July 6, 2003, three months after the U.S.-led
invasion, Wilson disclosed his Niger findings in a New York Times op-ed
article that represented an early crack in the president’s credibility
on the Iraq War.
Bush Spin Machine
The Bush spin machine quickly whirled into action,
even though it was clear by July 2003 that Bush was wrong about the
existence of large caches of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as well
as about an active nuclear weapons program. Still, the goal in summer
2003 was to discredit Joe Wilson.
It was in that context that the secret about
Plame’s covert role as a CIA officer working on WMD issues was somehow
delivered to the White House. From there, the sensitive fact, which also
could have jeopardized the lives of other operatives who were
cooperating with Plame, was fashioned into a public-relations attack on
Rather than keep the secret under tight control,
Bush’s White House bandied it about as a way to question Wilson’s
manhood, as a guy who needed his wife’s intervention to get him a job –
although Plame appears only to have mentioned her husband as one Africa
expert suitable for the Niger assignment.
To professional U.S. intelligence officers, the
notion of sharing such a precise secret – the identity of an undercover
CIA officer – with a spinmeister like Rove is anathema.
From a national security viewpoint, it also doesn’t
matter much whether Rove used Plame’s name. He certainly gave Time
magazine enough information – that Joe Wilson’s wife was a CIA officer –
to unmask her identity with a little bit of research.
But again, the national news media seems to have
missed the forest for the trees. By concentrating on whether Rove
specifically spoke Plame’s name to Cooper, the media is missing the
significance of the fact that a political operative like Rove would have
a hand in this operation at all.
The larger point is that senior White House
officials, possibly including Bush, revealed the identity of a covert
CIA officer as part of what appears to be a conspiracy to discredit
Wilson in retaliation for telling the truth in his op-ed column.
The key incriminating fact in this mystery is that
Rove had no reason to know who Plame was, except as part of a public
relations attack against her husband. It was a classic case of dirtying
up – or punishing – the messenger for delivering unwanted news.
It also fits with the long-running neoconservative
strategy of using “perception management” techniques to
“controversialize” critics and keep the American people in a constant
state of confusion. [For more on the evolution of those strategies, see
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
In the Plame case, there also was identifiable harm
to national security – the outing of a covert CIA officer working on WMD
issues – and a possible violation of a federal law that bars willful
disclosure of secret agents. That is why federal prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald was assigned to investigate the matter two years ago.
At minimum, the White House behavior indicates
gross negligence in handling a sensitive secret. But if the case were
simply negligence, heads probably would have rolled long ago. Any
administration serious about protecting national security would have
carried out stern disciplinary actions even as Fitzgerald’s
In the Iran-Contra Affair, for instance, Ronald
Reagan fired aides Oliver North and John Poindexter on Nov. 25, 1986,
the day the scandal was revealed, rather than wait for the conclusion of
a criminal probe.
On April 30, 1973, as the Watergate scandal was
unfolding, Richard Nixon ousted chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, domestic
policy chief John Ehrlichman and White House counsel John Dean. Nixon
famously promised “no whitewash at the White House.”
By contrast, George W. Bush has taken no known
disciplinary action against anyone for letting the identity of a covert
CIA officer leak out. Rove played a prominent role in Bush's reelection
campaign and has since been promoted to deputy White House chief of
Nor has Bush done anything to discourage his
right-wing supporters from denigrating Wilson, who gets routinely mocked
as a flaky self-promoter or a partisan Democrat.
These orchestrated attacks on Wilson have continued
despite the fact that U.S. government investigations – including several
ordered by Bush himself – have corroborated the absence of a
pre-invasion Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
So, this long-term pattern of White House behavior
suggests that negligence isn’t the whole story. Rather it looks as if
the dissemination of Plame’s identity may have crossed the line into a
criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of the U.S. government.
For two years now, what has been lacking from the
White House is a coherent explanation of how the information about
Plame’s identity got from the cloistered world of the CIA to White House
meetings and then into the hands of political adviser Rove.
Long ago, there should have been answers to the
--What national security purpose was served by
giving Karl Rove a sensitive secret that, if leaked, could endanger the
lives of covert intelligence operatives?
--Who attended White House meetings at which
Wilson’s disclosures and Plame’s identity were discussed? How was
Plame’s identity brought into these talks? By whom?
--Was George W. Bush present at any of these
meetings? As the president, who is ultimately responsible for decisions
about national security secrets, did Bush say anything about Wilson and
Plame? If so, what did he say and to whom?
--Did Bush or anyone else in the White House order
Rove to disparage Wilson?
In a healthy democracy, the news media would have
demanded answers before Election 2004, rather than focusing primarily on
the plight of several journalists caught up in demands for testimony
from prosecutor Fitzgerald.
Ironically, it was the caving in by Time magazine
last week that has opened the door slightly into the long-running White
House cover-up of the Plame case. But still the major news media misses
the bigger picture.
The answer to the Plame mystery is not the
Watergate advice of “follow the money” or even the obvious question of
who spilled the beans to Novak. Instead, the route to the heart of this
mystery is to follow the trail from who knew Plame’s identity at the CIA
through the White House meetings to Karl Rove.