The Plame Game

Murray Waas's latest scoop -- in which he broke new ground with a detailed account of the Bush administration's deceptions about Iraq -- has won plenty of plaudits already. But its true larger significance is still crying out to be explained.

To do this we need to step back and look at his revelation in the context of the ongoing investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame. If you do, you can see that what once were a bunch of disparate subplots -- the pre-war duplicity, the 2004 election, the Libby indictment, the continuing investigation into Karl Rove -- suddenly can be woven together into one grand narrative that makes coherent sense in a way that much of this story didn't before. And the resulting storyline is not a pretty one.

Waas's story -- presuming it's right, and his track record has thus far been admirable -- suggests a plausible motive for both “Scooter” Libby and Karl Rove to have misled the grand jury about Plame. Their motive for doing this has hitherto been rather difficult to explain. Why, many have asked, would Libby and Rove have lied and risked perjury charges about a transgression that may not have been illegal in the first place? Waas's story suggests a possible answer.

The story begins as follows:

Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, cautioned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that Bush's 2004 re-election prospects would be severely damaged if it was publicly disclosed that he had been personally warned that a key rationale for going to war had been challenged within the administration. Rove expressed his concerns shortly after an informal review of classified government records by then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley determined that Bush had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon -- might not be true, according to government records and interviews.

Hadley was particularly concerned that the public might learn of a classified one-page summary of a National Intelligence Estimate, specifically written for Bush in October 2002. The summary said that although “most agencies judge” that the aluminum tubes were “related to a uranium enrichment effort,” the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's intelligence branch “believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons.”

Three months after receiving that assessment, the president stated without qualification in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.”

There are several things we can take from this. The first is that, according to Waas, since October 2002 there has existed a smoking-gun that proved Bush had been told that some intelligence officials thought the tubes were for conventional weapons, not nukes -- well before he repeated the tale in his 2003 speech. The administration did acknowledge under fire six months after the speech that one chunk of evidence of Saddam's nuke ambitions -- the alleged procurement of uranium effort -- was wrong. But Bush's advisers largely defused that controversy by insulating the president from it. Meanwhile, the administration leaned heavily on the tubes story, which was central to its rationale for war.

It's already known that some administration officials had pre-invasion doubts about the tubes, and that Bush more or less was told about those doubts. But Waas's discovery, presuming he's right, is a big step forward. It constitutes concrete proof of those doubts -- and concrete proof of the extent to which Bush had been informed of these doubts before the invasion.

That leads to the second, equally important point. Waas also reports that Rove thought as early as the summer of 2003 that the document was radioactive enough to potentially destroy Bush's re-election chances. Waas adds that Bush advisers thought that if doubts about the tubes came out, it would be much harder to shield Bush from criticism for them than it was for the uranium tale -- because there apparently existed hard evidence that the president had been told of those doubts.

Now fast forward to early 2004. That's when Libby testified before the Plame grand jury. Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment alleges that Libby lied about how and when he learned Plame's identity and disclosed information about her to reporters. Rove, too, misled the grand jury by failing to mention a conversation with a reporter about Plame. (Rove subsequently disclosed it, but only after a discovered e-mail jogged his memory. Libby has pled innocent, and Rove wasn't indicted, though he reportedly remains under investigation).

That's where matters stand now. Now let's try to fit these pieces together.

The thing about the Plame investigation that never quite seemed to make sense was this: Why would Libby or Rove deliberately mislead the grand jury, risking perjury charges when it wasn't clear the leak was a crime?

Thanks to Waas, for the first time, we may now know for a fact that Rove and other Bush advisers viewed the truth about the run-up to war as something that could destroy his re-election prospects. It is entirely plausible that Bush advisers calculated that if it came out that they'd outed Plame, Congress would have been forced by the resulting firestorm to run a far more aggressive investigation of Bush's pre-war deceptions – and possibly uncover the smoking gun Waas reports on, among other things. Remember, Libby and Rove testified in early 2004, during the heat of a presidential campaign which Rove himself had apparently concluded was at risk if existing hard evidence of Bush's deceptions surfaced.

So it seems plausible that Libby and Rove sought to minimize the chance of the aggressive congressional oversight that might have resulted if it became known that they'd outed Plame. In short, misleading the grand jury about Plame may simply have been a key piece of a broader effort to get past the election before the truth about the run-up to the war surfaced to sink his campaign.

That interpretation is consistent with what was going on at the time. The Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Bush ally Pat Roberts, was investigating pre-war intelligence -- and as would subsequently be learned, managed to sidestep the central question of how the White House used that information to build the case for war, a maneuver that made it clear that Roberts was trying to postpone that line of inquiry until after the election. What's more, the White House was throughout refusing to release presidential daily briefs that may have revealed what Bush knew and when.

Meanwhile, other things suggested that the White House was doing everything possible to prevent an aggressive effort by the press to unearth what now looks to be solid evidence of the White House's pre-war duplicity. As Josh Marshall put it in a post about the Waas story:

We saw this and the cover-up it spawned firsthand. While I and reporters from CBS were working on this story through 2004, it was clear that folks on the Hill would agree to talk and then suddenly un-agree when they got the call from the White House. The White House worked doggedly at almost every turn to get the story killed or delayed beyond the election, which they of course did.

The cover-up on this one is deep. Really deep. And much of it has yet to be uncovered.

The history of recent presidential deception tells us that the small, initial cover-ups, ones which at first appear to make little sense, are frequently motivated by a desire to prevent other, larger damaging revelations from surfacing. If Waas is right, it seems plausible that the whole sordid saga unfolded this way:

White House officials, including Bush himself, withheld critical information it had about doubts over supposed evidence of Saddam's nuke ambitions in order to better make the case for war. Then they subsequently discovered that hard evidence existed of that duplicity. Then, anxious that this evidence might surface before the 2004 reelection, they engaged in a relentless campaign to cover up what really happened during the Iraq run-up and to prevent an aggressive congressional investigation until after the election. They relied on Pat Roberts to run a pseudo-investigation; they withheld the daily briefs; they leaned on Hill allies not to talk to the press. And they obscured their role in the outing of Plame to prevent an outcry that would have certainly forced Congress and the press to probe far more aggressively than they did. And they succeeded: If Congress and the press had been more aggressive -- and this may be the real significance of Waas's story -- it's perfectly possible that John Kerry would now be president.

If that's how it happened, then it may be only a matter of time before the whole story comes tumbling out. Waas has reported that there's a piece of paper out there that proves Bush deceived the nation during the run-up to the war. The nation's premiere investigative reporters, one would think, would very much like to see that piece of paper for themselves. And if there's one thing recent history tells us, it's that the small, short-term cover-ups never do succeed in preventing the larger story from coming to light. That larger story is still waiting to be told in all its gristly detail – and, eventually, reporters other than Murray Waas will get around to telling it.

Update: Above, "the alleged procurement of uranium" was changed to "the alleged procurement of uranium effort."

Greg Sargent, a contributing editor for New York magazine, writes bi-weekly for The American Prospect Online. He can be reached at greg_sargent@newyorkmag.com.

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