Rove on the Ropes

From the very beginning, the white house propaganda assault against former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and his wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, a longtime officer in the CIA, looked like the work of Karl Rove. The malicious leaks against the Wilsons -- which have led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and the imprisonment of a New York Times reporter -- displayed the style Rove has developed ever since his youthful apprenticeship with the Nixon gang: false information, whispered and broadcast, designed to damage reputations of “enemies” and to divert attention from substance, to further partisan advantage and to exact personal vengeance.

Throughout his adult life, the president's chief political adviser and deputy chief of staff has escaped responsibility for the ugly and blatant tactics that have marked his career in campaigns and in public office. Awful things have happened to people foolish or unfortunate enough to fall within the shadow of his wrath, from the Alabama judge whose life was ruined by whispers of pedophilia to Senator John McCain, whose wife and child were smeared by anonymous calls during the South Carolina primary in 2000, to former anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, whose decades of national service were erased by a sudden wave of baseless vilification -- and, of course, to Vietnam War hero John Kerry, who found his service record dirtied up just enough to neutralize the Democrat's advantage as a combat veteran over George W. Bush during last year's presidential election.

The man whom the president calls “Turd Blossom” and “Boy Genius” is a powerful bully. Fear of retribution has stifled those who might have revealed his secrets. He has enjoyed the impunity of a malefactor who could always claim, however implausibly, deniability -- until now.

Whether Rove faces legal consequences for his role here will hinge on whether any official, including Rove, violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which is carefully drawn to exclude prosecution of unintentional and innocent disclosures of an agent's identity -- or whether any official lied or obstructed justice in the course of this investigation.

On the legal question, Rove deserves the presumption of innocence as much as any American. But he must also be judged according to a broader standard based on the values that Bush once promised would be paramount in this presidency: honor, integrity, and character. To understand how Rove smudged those values, it is necessary to review the essential facts of the case, and to clear away the disinformation broadcast by the White House and its media allies over the past two years.

The Facts

On July 10, Newsweek reported the contents of an e-mail turned over to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald by Time magazine, following a long legal battle over the testimony and notes of Time White House correspondent Matthew Cooper. That e-mail, sent by Cooper to bureau chief Michael Duffy on July 11, 2003, described Cooper's brief “double super secret background” conversation with Rove about the Wilsons. Rove had told him that neither CIA Director George Tenet nor Vice President Dick Cheney had sent the former ambassador to the West African nation of Niger, where he sought information on supposed uranium sales to Iraq. Instead “it was, KR said, wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd issues who authorized the trip.” Cooper's e-mail went on to say “not only the genesis of the trip is flawed an[d] suspect but so is the report. [Rove] implied strongly there's still plenty to implicate iraqi interest in acquiring uranium fro[m] Niger ... .” Thus did two years of White House denials of any role in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity suddenly become defunct.

The matter under investigation by Fitzgerald can be traced back to the spring and summer of 2003. That was when Joseph Wilson decided that he could no longer keep quiet about the belligerent misinformation emanating from the Bush White House to justify the war against Iraq.

More than a year earlier, Wilson had traveled to Niamey, Niger's capital, at the request of the CIA. The objective of his unpaid mission was to assess whether Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had secretly attempted to buy partially enriched uranium from the Nigerians in defiance of United Nations resolutions. If the intelligence suggesting such a deal turned out to be true, the argument for military action against a potential nuclear threat from Baghdad would be bolstered.

In the course of a long diplomatic career, Wilson had served as a junior officer in Niamey; as U.S. ambassador to Gabon, another uranium-producing country; and as senior officer for African affairs at the National Security Council. He had also weathered a harsh, dangerous posting in Baghdad as deputy chief of mission prior to the Gulf War in 1990, where his outstanding bravery led President George Bush Senior to praise him as a hero.

That résumé -- plus his personal familiarity with the political and diplomatic elite in Niger -- certainly qualified Wilson to inquire into allegations about that country's uranium trafficking with Iraq. At the request of midlevel CIA officials in the Directorate of Operations, he went to Niger for eight days without compensation beyond his expenses. He reported back to the agency that he had found no significant evidence of any such deal with Iraq.

Ten months later, in his State of the Union address, President Bush alluded to Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from Africa as evidence of the mounting threat from Baghdad. Wilson listened to the president in disbelief; he even wrote in his autobiography, The Politics of Truth, that perhaps the president had been referring to “an African country other than Niger,” so at odds was the assertion with what Wilson found. Over the next few months, the former ambassador quietly tried to urge the White House to end the growing controversy over the false “16 words” by taking responsibility.

When those quiet efforts failed, Wilson wrote an op-ed article for the July 6, 2003, edition of The New York Times, recounting his mission to Niger, headlined “What I Didn't Find in Africa.” Wilson's sharp debunking of the Niger fabrication caused severe embarrassment to the president, then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and other White House officials responsible for highlighting the bogus Niger allegation -- which turned out to be based on documents forged in Italy.

Eight days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak reported that “senior administration officials” had denigrated Wilson and revealed that “his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” Novak quoted those officials as saying that Wilson's wife “suggested sending him to Niger to investigate … .” Time magazine published a similar report online on July 17 under Cooper's byline.

The Spin

Ever since the story broke, and certainly since the investigation was launched, the White House and its defenders have turned to methods that have become all too familiar: attack the critics, make it seem as if they have hidden agendas and secret motives, and if their loyalty to flag and country can be impugned, all the better.

The first tack was to discredit the Wilsons. By inventing a phony suspicion of “nepotism” on their part, the leakers sought to divert attention away from the actual issues of distorted intelligence, to discredit a critic with professional stature and inside knowledge, to intimidate present and former government officials who might consider blowing the whistle, and -- most crucially -- to give war a chance, evidence or not.

But, in fact, the former ambassador's trip was no “boondoggle” authorized by his wife. Valerie Plame Wilson lacked the authority to send her husband to Niger, and he profited in no way from his unpaid, weeklong sojourn in one of the poorest desert countries on earth, thousands of miles from his wife and 2-year-old twins. She did not even need to suggest his name to her colleagues or superiors because he had completed a similar mission for the agency four years earlier. But there would have been nothing wrong with such a suggestion anyway. The CIA officers who sent Joseph Wilson to Niger knew he was more than qualified to undertake that task.

Plame, for her part, had worked undercover in Europe and the United States to prevent weapons proliferation, earning professional accolades and promotions. Prior to the leak, her closest friends and neighbors believed that she was an “energy analyst” for a fictional company called Brewster-Jennings Associates.

By disclosing her actual job, Novak ended her career -- and potentially endangered her and every contact known to have done business with her. The uproar over her “outing” led to public and editorial demands for an investigation to discover which “senior administration officials” were responsible for this outrageous and arguably illegal act. Rove was an obvious suspect. For one thing, Rove and Novak had a history: Rove was fired from George Bush Senior's 1992 re-election campaign for supposedly leaking a story about a close Bush Senior confidant -- to Novak (Rove and Novak deny it). Such suspicions reflected more than mere speculation. Shortly after the Novak column appeared, Rove had reportedly called Hardball host Chris Matthews with the message “Wilson's wife is fair game.” The stunned Matthews, who has since refused to comment on the incident, apparently had the decency to call Wilson and inform him of Rove's ominous remark.

Plame was indeed “fair game,” according to the Republican pundits and politicians who have participated in the years-long assault on the Wilsons, because she wasn't truly an undercover agent. Various writers, publications, and Web sites have claimed, without proof, that her identity was well-known. Her regular presence at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, they have argued, indicates that she wasn't undercover. The CIA differed with those amateur assessments, as the agency made clear in statements to the press as well as in its official letter seeking a probe of the leak, requesting “an investigation into the disclosure earlier that year of the identity of an employee operating under cover.”

Her undercover status was again confirmed during the struggle over Fitzgerald's subpoenas to Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times. When a three-judge appellate panel upheld those subpoenas and rejected arguments that the reporters were entitled to protect their sources, they noted that Fitzgerald had provided voluminous -- but still secret -- grand-jury evidence that he was seeking to prosecute a serious crime against national security. An unhindered prosecution, wrote Circuit Judge David Tatel, “appears essential to remedying a serious breach of public trust.” That could not be true unless the prosecutor believes and can prove that Plame was undercover -- and that leaking her identity jeopardized national-security sources and methods.

Another tack has been to go after Fitzgerald. He took over the case at the end of 2003, after questions arose about long-standing political connections between Rove and then–Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft recused himself, and Deputy Attorney General James Comey named Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois and a prosecutor with a reputation as tough, straight, and nonpartisan.

The Washington Times editorialized recently that Fitzgerald has spent $2 million and “can't supply value for the government's money.” But in truth, having cheered on Kenneth Starr for five years in his rambling, highly partisan (and $70 million) Whitewater investigation, the right has no credible complaint against Fitzgerald. He is a Bush appointee, chosen to investigate this case by another Bush appointee, at the behest of a Bush-appointed attorney general and with the acquiescence of the president himself -- who has declared, sincerely or not, his desire to “get to the bottom” of this matter, according to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Bearing those credentials, Fitzgerald has tried to uncover the leakers' identity for two years, enduring jeers from The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the rest of the Republican noise machine. Unlike Starr, his office hasn't leaked, and the targets of his investigation remain unknown.

Decision Time

It is certainly possible that Karl Rove committed no crime and that he is not, as his attorney insists, a “target” of Fitzgerald's investigation. He may have spoken truthfully during his three reported appearances before the grand jury and in his earlier interviews with the FBI. The prosecutor could be seeking instead to indict the person or persons who may have violated the intelligence-identities law by revealing Plame's identity to Rove and others in the White House -- and to squeeze Rove into providing names, dates, and details of the plot against the Wilsons.

Yet whether he trespassed a single narrowly drawn statute or not, he deserves to be held accountable for his irresponsible and cowardly attack on a woman who has devoted her life to her country, exemplifying the patriotism he and the president so often extol for their own partisan purposes. Rove may never be indicted, but he certainly revealed Plame's identity -- and encouraged the vile campaign against her and her husband.

As for Bush, he must be held responsible for the misconduct of his staff, even (or perhaps especially) the cherished “Boy Wonder” who propelled him into the Oval Office. In an unrehearsed moment during the early days of the scandal, Bush talked about how difficult it might be to locate the “evildoers” in this case.

“I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official,” he said on October 7, 2003. “Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials. I don't have any idea. I'd like to. I want to know the truth. That's why I've instructed this staff of mine to cooperate fully with the investigators -- full disclosure, everything we know the investigators will find out. I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is -- partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers. But we'll find out.”

At a press conference on June 10, 2004, a reporter asked Bush two questions about the case: “Do you still stand by what you said several months ago, a suggestion that it might be difficult to identify anybody who leaked the agent's name? … And do you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found to have done so?” The president replied: “Yes. And that's up to [Fitzgerald] to find the facts.”

Contrary to expectations, Fitzgerald is finding those facts, and the day is approaching when Bush must confront their implications -- or turn away, and finally prove that his rhetoric of honor and integrity has no meaning. No doubt he has been reminded more than once of what his father said in April 1999, when the former president and ex-CIA director attended a ceremony dedicating the agency's headquarters in his name:

Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, narco-trafficking, people killing each other, fundamentalists killing each other in the name of God … . As our analysts know, as our collectors of intelligence know, these are our enemies. To combat them we need more intelligence, not less. We need more human intelligence. That means we need more protection for the methods we use to gather intelligence and more protection for our sources, particularly our human sources, people that are risking their lives for their country.

Even though I'm a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors.

Joe Conason is the Prospect's investigative editor.