This media frenzy on the purported leak of a CIA operative’s identity, not coincidentally, comes during the summer doldrums — a time when traditionally little real national news happens and Congress is preoccupied mainly with the coming August recess.
It’s important to understand this story was playing itself out in the context of a domestic news vacuum (at least prior to Judge John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court) that created a deeply distorted environment rife with speculation, conjecture, misinformation and exaggeration.
One troubling aspect of the story is the growing belief, if you give any credence to the polls, that the White House has not been fully cooperative with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation.
On the contrary, every necessary party in the White House has signed a waiver giving the green light to any reporter they may have talked to on background. The waiver indicates reporters may discuss whatever they know with investigators.
President Bush’s chief political adviser and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove has signed it, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, has signed it. So has everyone else asked to do so.
Mr. Rove has testified before the grand jury several times. So has Mr. Libby and many others. E-mails and memos have been produced. Phone logs have been examined. There is no hint of complaint from Mr. Fitzgerald that the White House has been anything less than cooperative. But top Democratic leaders, desperately looking for an issue in the absence of a real agenda, are crying “stonewalling” and some people apparently believe that’s happening here.
The core of this story deals with one question: Did Mr. Rove leak the name of Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, to reporters? She works for the CIA and, according to a congressional report, had a key role in sending her husband to Niger in 2002 to investigate charges Saddam Hussein sought nuclear materials from the African nation.
But it doesn’t appear Mr. Rove did, at least not explicitly. Who says so? A reporter at the center of this media maelstrom, Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper, who called Mr. Rove to ask him about allegations swirling around Mr. Wilson’s dubious trip.
Writing in this week’s issue of Time, Mr. Cooper says: “So did Rove leak Plame’s name to me, or tell me she was covert? No.”
As for Mr. Libby, when asked on background by Mr. Cooper if Mrs. Plame sent Mr. Wilson to Niger, Mr. Libby, according to Mr. Cooper, responded, “I’ve heard that.” But is that confirmation of anything, as Mr. Cooper claims? People like Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove are told a lot of things, often from very disreputable sources. But saying they heard it, too, does not mean they are confirming its truthfulness and authenticity.
Did Mr. Rove hear this from other reporters? Very likely. Did he know this for sure? Mr. Bush’s longtime political strategist said he did not know Mr. Wilson’s wife’s name at the time, did not know she was a covert agent, and Mr. Cooper confirms Mr. Rove never uttered her name during their conversation.
It’s certainly not clear from Mr. Cooper’s notes or an e-mail he later wrote after talking with Mr. Rove. At one point, Mr. Cooper writes in his e-mail, “Wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency on [weapons of mass destruction issues].” Well, “apparently” sounds like he isn’t absolutely, positively sure.
In fact, he wasn’t. “I told the grand jury I was certain that Rove never used her name and that, indeed, I did not learn her name until the following week when I either saw it in Robert Novak’s column or Googled her, I can’t recall which.”
The key point Mr. Rove made to Mr. Cooper was a cautionary one, “Don’t get too far out in front” on Mr. Wilson’s claims the CIA sent him to Niger at Mr. Cheney’s urging.
It turned out the claim in a New York Times op-ed column Mr. Wilson wrote that Mr. Cheney sent him to Niger was utterly false. Appearing on “Meet the Press” to answer Mr. Wilson’s charges, Mr. Cheney said, “I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson,” adding Mr. Wilson “never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.”
Mr. Wilson also denied it was his wife who suggested he go to Niger to investigate the suspicion it might sell “yellowcake” uranium to Iraq. But this, too, was false. Congress’ Select Committee on Intelligence reported the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division (CPD) told them Mr. Wilson’s “wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip.”
What became of Mr. Wilson’s report? The CIA considered it “shoddy” work, “thin” on substantive information, and was never used as the basis of the CIA analysis or in its briefings.
We now know Mr. Wilson had other motives from the very beginning of his role in this little drama. He endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president in October 2003, contributed to his campaign and regularly advised his staff.
How will this all turn out? The latest buzz is Mr. Fitzgerald has already concluded no crime was involved here, so he is looking into whether there may have been a cover-up. Sounds like a prosecutor desperately searching for something to justify two years of fruitless work.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.