Deseret Morning News, Tuesday, July 12, 2005

White House turns silent on Rove

Bush had said source of Plame leak would be fired

By Ken Herman
Cox News Service

WASHINGTON Faced with reports linking senior adviser Karl Rove to the disclosure of a CIA operative's identity, the White House on Monday stepped back from months of assurances that anybody in the administration involved in the leak would be fired.

In a unusually contentious briefing, even by White House press standards, spokesman Scott McClellan was pelted with 35 questions on the topic. He declined to answer them all including invitations to repeat previous denials of Rove's involvement by citing a special prosecutor's request for public silence on the investigation of who revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson, was an undercover operative for the CIA.

The latest approach came amid revelations potentially troubling for a president who, after vowing to get to the bottom of it, is finding out the answer may be near the top. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, told The New York Times that Rove referred to Plame in a July 2003 conversation with a Time reporter.

McClellan said the special prosecutor in the case has asked the White House not to discuss it.

Democrats moved quickly Monday to urge congressional hearings on the matter, as well as calling on Bush to strip Rove, his longtime top political adviser, of his security clearance and ban him from classified discussions.

"If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, calling on Bush to follow through on his promise to fire anybody involved.

At issue is who disclosed Plame's identity, possibly as retribution for Wilson's criticism of Bush's rationale for the war in Iraq or to undermine the credibility, by suggesting he got the assignment only because of his wife. Wilson traveled to Niger to look into an assertion Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy materials there for weapons of mass destruction. Wilson said he found no evidence to support that claim.

Revealing the identity of a CIA operative is a federal offense and is among the topics being looked at by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

After months of simmering controversy, the situation escalated last week when New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to reveal the confidential administration source who had talked to her about Plame. Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper avoided incarceration after a source freed him to speak to the grand jury under Fitzgerald's guidance.

Time Inc. turned over Cooper's e-mail and notes and these confirm Rove as one of his sources, The New York Times reported.

In August 2003, Wilson fingered Rove as the culprit who outed his wife, saying, "It's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

At the time, McClellan vehemently and specifically denied any involvement by Rove, I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff; and Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser.

Rove, in a CNN interview during last year's Republican National Convention, said, "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name."

The comment now begs the question as to whether Rove referred to her in another way, a possibility raised by a Cooper e-mail to his editors, according to a Newsweek report.

"It was, KR said, Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on WMD issues who authorized the trip," Cooper said in the e-mail about his July 11, 2003, conversation with Rove. At issue was who assigned Wilson to go to Niger to check out Bush's comment.

Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, told the New York Times that his client "was not afraid of what Cooper is going to say and is clearly trying to be fully candid with the prosecutor."

"A fair reading of the e-mail as well as the context in which the conversation took place makes it clear that the information conveyed was not part of an organized effort to disclose Plame's identity," Luskin said, asserting that Rove was merely trying to warn Cooper against writing an inaccurate account of Wilson's involvement.

The Cooper-Rove conversation came three days before syndicated columnist Robert Novak reported that two administration officials had told him that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative. The brief conversation came five days after the New York Times published a Wilson's commentary in which he said, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

In refusing Monday to answer any questions about it, McClellan would not say if Bush is standing by his promise to fire anybody involved in leaking the name of a CIA operative.

Bush on Monday took a pass on a chance to discuss the issue. On the White House south lawn, after his helicopter arrived from his morning speech at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., a reporter who wanted to ask Bush about Rove's involvement asked Bush to stop to respond to one question.

"No such thing," Bush said as he continued to the Oval Office.

But congressional Democrats seem eager to discuss it now. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., urged the Committee on Government Reform to force Rove to testify.

"A congressional hearing at which Mr. Rove testifies under oath remains the simplest and most effective means for Congress and the public to learn the truth about this disgraceful incident," Waxman said in a letter to Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said Bush should suspend Rove's security clearance and ban him from classified meetings.

"As a 31-year veteran of politics, Karl Rove should know that if you want to keep a secret you don't tell a reporter," Lautenberg said.

The White House say-nothing approach is in stark contrast to its previous tack.

On Sept. 30, 2003, Bush, in Chicago for a meeting with business leaders, took a few questions about it.

"There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington," Bush said in Chicago on Sept. 30, 2003, adding "and if there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."

Asked if he had talked to Rove about it, Bush said, "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information I'd like to know it. And this investigation is a good thing."

"Leaks of classified information are bad things. . . . And I want to know who the leakers are," Bush said.

A day later, McClellan, in one of his definitive denials of any involvement by Rove, called it "a ridiculous suggestion" and "it's simply not true that he was involved in leaking classified information, and nor did he condone that kind of activity."

"I've known Karl for a long time and I didn't even need to go ask Karl because I know the kind of person that he is, and he is someone that is committed to the highest standards of conduct," McClellan said.

On Oct. 6, 2003, McClellan couched it a bit differently, allowing for the possibility that somebody in the administration might have talked to a reporter about Plame's involvement.

"There is a difference between setting the record straight and doing something to punish someone for speaking out," he said at the time.

A day later, McClellan said, "It's perfectly acceptable when someone makes statements that aren't based on the facts to correct that information. And this White House will vigorously work to set the record straight, when facts ell, when information is presented that is not based on the facts."

McClellan also issued the blanket denial that day, saying he had talked with Rove, Libby and Abrams and "they assured me that they were not involved in this."

One Democrat with experience in defending the Clinton White House says Rove may not be in legal jeopardy. Lanny Davis was a special counsel to President Clinton. He said Monday that to violate the law, Rove would have had to know Plame was a covert officer; intentionally disclose that fact; and know that the CIA wanted her covert status kept secret.

"It's extremely difficult to violate that law and to prove a violation," Davis said.