By Dan FroomkinSpecial to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 17, 2005; 12:51 PM
The Bush White House this week is bracing for the possible indictments of Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, the president and vice president's two most essential aides. The damage to the White House could be incalculable.
So what went wrong? Here's my theory.
If in fact Rove and Libby are indicted, it could turn out to be because the kind of hairsplitting, enigmatic answers that have worked so well as staving off the White House press corps over the years served them very poorly once a resolute federal prosecutor entered the picture.
From the get-go, Rove and Libby (and their lawyers) have cleaved to a very precisely constructed defense: That they didn't leak Valerie Plame's name to anyone -- and never explicitly told anyone that she was a covert CIA agent.
In one of Rove's few on-the-record pronouncements on the case, he said onCNN last year: "I didn't know her name.
I didn't leak her name."
Libby, in aletter to New York Times reporter Judith Miller just a few weeks ago, reminded her of his position: "The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me."
The "no-name" defense may be technically accurate. Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, for instance, recalled Rove telling him about "Wilson's wife" and that she generically worked at the agency. Miller on Sunday wrote that she and Libby spoke about Wilson's wife three times, but that she couldn't be sure if Libby had ever used Plame's name -- and she couldn't say how two mangled versions of Plame's name showed up in the notebook she used to record the interviews. She also wrote that her notes did not show that Libby described Plame as covert -- although Libby did tell her precisely what unit within the CIA she worked for.
This particular defense allowed Rove and Libby -- and the White House spokesman, on their behalf -- to issue what the press corps interpreted as authoritative blanket denials about their involvement in the leak.
And in the face of the original, narrowly defined criminal investigation -- into whether anyone had intentionally disclosed the identity of a covert agent -- it may have seemed like a good idea.
But this particular defense may also have locked Rove and Libby into some statements that defied a common-sense interpretation of the facts. And indeed, a variety of leaked reports suggest that Rove initially told the grand jury that he had never talked to Cooper about Plame, and Libby said he never talked to Miller about Plame.
Common sense, however, says there's no real difference between referring to "Valerie Plame" and "Joe Wilson's wife" -- and that whether or not they knew she was covert didn't change the fact that she was.
Common sense sometimes has no better ally than a determined federal prosecutor -- especially one with the liberty to expand the investigation to include allegations of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.
And special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has some significant advantages over the White House press corps when it comes to getting answers. He's not trying to curry favor with anyone. He has an intense professional aversion to being lied to. And perhaps most devastatingly, he can ask as many follow up questions as he wants.
"Making his fourth appearance before the grand jury, Rove answered a broad range of questions for 4 1/2 hours, including why he did not initially tell federal agents about a July 2003 conversation about Plame with the witness, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, the source said.
"Rove's defense team asserts that President Bush's deputy chief of staff has not committed a crime but nevertheless anticipates that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald could find a way to bring charges in the next two weeks, the source said."Viveca Novak and Mike Allen write in Time: "Karl Rove has a plan, as always. Even before testifying last week for the fourth time before a grand jury probing the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, Bush senior adviser Rove and others at the White House had concluded that if indicted he would immediately resign or possibly go on unpaid leave, several legal and Administration sources familiar with the thinking told Time. Resignation is the much more likely scenario, they say. The same would apply to I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the Vice President's chief of staff, who also faces a possible indictment. A former White House official says Rove's break with Bush would have to be clean -- no 'giving advice from the sidelines' -- for the sake of the Administration." John Dickerson writes in Slate: "White House officials will not talk about the case but do not challenge the logical notion that Chief of Staff Andy Card is already thinking through how to fill Rove's shoes. Card can shuffle around his duties into different organizational boxes, but it won't do much good. Rove can't be replaced. His departure would create a 'black hole,' says one official who works with Rove closely. 'He's irreplaceable.' " Kenneth T. Walsh, Paul Bedard and Julian E. Barnes write in U.S. News that "some worried White House insiders are now talking about who might replace him if he becomes entangled in a criminal inquiry. Topping the list: lobbyist, former Republican Party chairman, and judicial shepherd Ed Gillespie." Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "A Rove indictment would shake the White House and damage Bush at a time of intense difficulty, robbing the president of the strategist he has relied on since his earliest days in politics, and tainting Bush and the rest of his inner circle by association."
'It's basically the figurative end of the Bush administration,' said Paul C. Light, a New York University public service professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy."
But Johnston also notes: "Whether Ms. Miller said anything in her testimony that was damaging to Mr. Libby was unclear, partly because Ms. Miller said she could not recall specific details at the heart of the prosecutor's inquiry."Walter Pincus and Howard Kurtz write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, has 'a problem' in the investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's identity if his testimony conflicts with information given to the grand jury by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, her lawyer said yesterday.
"Robert S. Bennett, speaking on the ABC program 'This Week' on the day the Times disclosed new information about three conversations Miller had with Libby about the CIA employment of a White House critic's wife, said that 'much would depend upon what Mr. Libby said to the grand jury. . . . ' "Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide could face obstruction charges over whether he tried to shape a New York Times reporter's testimony about the outing of a covert CIA operative, people close to the case said on Sunday. . . .
"Sources said Libby could be in legal jeopardy over one sentence in a September 15 letter he sent to Miller while she was still in jail. In that letter, Libby urged Miller to testify about their conversations and noted that other reporters had made clear to the grand jury that 'they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me. . . ."
'Our reaction when we got that letter, both Judy's and mine, is that was a very stupid thing to put in a letter because it just complicated the situation,' Bennett said."
Focus on Cheney Himself?
"The special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, has questioned current and former officials of President George W. Bush's administration about whether Cheney was involved in an effort to discredit the agent's husband, Iraq war critic and former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, according to the people. . . .
"There's no indication Fitzgerald is considering criminal charges against the vice president, who gave unsworn testimony to investigators last year. One option for Fitzgerald is to outline his findings about Cheney's role if he files a final report on the investigation.
"Fitzgerald, 45, has also questioned administration officials about any knowledge Bush may have had of the campaign against Wilson. Yet most administration observers have noted that on Iraq, as with most matters, it's Cheney who has played the more hands-on role."
A Scooter Profile
"For more than two decades, he has wielded his clout instead in the rooms at the Pentagon, State Department and White House where policies are set. As Vice President Cheney's chief of staff and national security adviser since 2001, he has been involved in almost every important decision made by the Bush administration."
'He does for the vice president what the vice president does for President Bush,' says Mary Matalin, a former counselor to Cheney. In Plan of Attack, his 2004 book on the Iraq war, Bob Woodward described Libby as 'a power center unto himself, and accordingly, a force multiplier for Cheney's agenda and views.' "
Among the many, many issues that remain unclear is why Miller didn't take on face value Libby's original assurance, delivered via his lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, and her lawyer, Floyd Abrams, that she was free to testify about their conversations.
The Times reported that Miller said that Abrams came back and told her that Tate "was pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn't give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, 'Don't go there, or, we don't want you there.' "
Tate denied that he said any such thing. And in their Post story this morning,Pincus and Kurtz write: "In an interview yesterday, Abrams declined to endorse Miller's account that Libby did not want her to testify unless she was going to exonerate him. 'That's Judy's interpretation,' Abrams said. Tate 'certainly asked me what Judy would say, but that's an entirely proper question.' "
So was Miller just making this up? Or did she take it upon herself to protect Libby from testimony that she thought might damage him?
Another mystery is who -- if not Libby -- provided Miller with Plame's name. Miller says she doesn't remember.Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "No single facet of yesterday's Times account drew more condemnation than Miller saying she cannot recall the name of another source who told her about 'Valerie Flame,' as she recorded the name in her notebook. Miller said the notation was in a different part of the same notebook used for her first interview with Libby in June 2003."
Abrams weighed in on that issue with Pincus and Kurtz, as well. Abrams "minimized Miller's assertion that another source may have given her the name 'Valerie Flame,' as she recorded it in the same notebook used for her first interview of Libby. Abrams said others may have mentioned Plame only 'in passing. . . . The central and essentially only figure who had information was Libby.'"John D. McKinnon, Joe Hagan and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal about a brief phone interview with Miller yesterday: "She reiterated that she couldn't recall who told her the name that she transcribed as 'Valerie Flame.' 'I don't remember who told me the name,' she said, growing agitated. 'I wasn't writing a story, remember?' Asked if the other source was Mr. Rove, she replied, 'I'm not going to discuss anyone else that I talked to.' "
"Eric A. Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said Rove's office contacted him Friday to cancel because of a 'scheduling conflict.' "
C-SPAN's Brian Lamb got an hour with White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card on Friday. Here's thetranscript .
Lamb asked about the impact of the investigation on the White House.
"CARD: Well, obviously we're all human beings and we know that there are external activities that impact the environment you're working in. And the ongoing investigation is one where everyone at the White House to my knowledge has been cooperating and helping.
"The president has asked that we all cooperate, and we are. And -- but it is something that is there, but it is something that we don't talk about because it would be inappropriate. We all have a job to do. The president has appointed people who do their job and they do it very well. And I haven't found anyone that is distracted because of the ongoing investigation, but we all know that it's taking place and we're all working to cooperate with the investigators."
McClellan Fights Back
Kurtz writes: "McClellan, for his part, said his job is 'to mix it up a little bit and keep them on their toes. Reporters like to swing away at others, but they don't like it when you punch back. The pack mentality goes into overdrive. . . . The media's trying to get under our skin and get us off-message. My job is to help the president advance his agenda.' "
Lamb had a related question for Card in his C-SPAN interview:
"LAMB: Why do you send Scott McClellan out there every day to be pummeled by people in the press corps?
"CARD: He is feeding a giant monster called the media. And they are insatiable. And if he were not out there providing information for them, they would probably be scratching at doors that they shouldn't scratch at. "Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times about Friday's gaggle: "In an awkward moment on Friday, Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, was asked whether the administration was distracted by the CIA investigation.
He attempted a joke, pretending to ignore the question. No one laughed. He tried again, his eyes swivelling away from the podium. 'I'm sorry, I'm a little distracted up here,' he said. Again, no one laughed."
Friday's on-camerabriefing , a few hours later, was only little more lighthearted.
Miers Strategy Shift
"So, as the White House counsel begins her formal prep sessions this week for a confirmation hearing that's likely to start in early November, President Bush will hold a photo op with former chief justices of the Texas Supreme Court who will testify to Miers' qualifications and legal mind."Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "So they are releasing Harriet 2.0, focusing on an inch-by-inch ground game. . . .
"The switch was a rare, but necessary, admission of a strategic screw-up. 'We got distracted by discussions about her faith and church attendance that really have no bearing on her qualifications for the court,' said a Bush aide close to the confirmation process, insisting on anonymity so he could speak freely. 'That's what we've got to get back to.' "
But expanding on those qualifications may prove challenging.Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "Ask any of Harriet E. Miers's typically press-shy White House colleagues what she has been like in her years as a top Bush administration staff member, and the praise pours out. She is intelligent. Meticulous. Selfless. Insightful. But when it comes down to cases, they have a harder time.
" 'You know, she's a very gracious and funny person,' said Joshua B. Bolten, the director of the Office of Management and Budget whom Ms. Miers succeeded as deputy White House chief of staff in 2003. 'I was racking my brain trying to think of something specific.'
"In the next breath, Mr. Bolten recalled relaxing with her at Camp David. 'She is a very good bowler,' he said. 'For someone her size, she actually gets a lot of action out of the pins.'"
Cheney sat down for an interview on Friday with Fox News'sBrit Hume . He wouldn't talk about Libby. But he did talk about Miers. And while his comments were supportive, they weren't exactly enthusiastic.
"HUME: When this process was going forward and you were involved in it, before the president had made a decision, did you favor her?
"CHENEY: Brit, you're trying to get me back around into talking about what kind of advice I gave the president. I never discussed that. I am privileged to have the opportunity to work for the president. He and I talk about a whole range of things. Once he has made a decision I support those decisions.
"I think Harriet will be a good Supreme Court justice. I support her nomination and look forward to her appearance before the committee.
"HUME: There's one report that says that resistance to her came out, not from you, but from your office. Is that true?
"CHENEY: I don't believe a lot of what I read in the press, Brit. I have never commented upon the advice I give the president and I'm not going to start now."
"Bush has made highly publicized trips to Louisiana and Mississippi on average of once a week since the storm, but the administration has yet to introduce legislation for two of the three proposals the president highlighted during his September speech from New Orleans."
Has another Bush doctrine bitten the dust?David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "For most of the 30 months since American-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has argued that as democracy took hold in Iraq, the insurgency would lose steam because Al Qaeda and the opponents of the country's interim government had nothing to offer Iraqis or the people of the Middle East. . . .
"But inside the administration, that belief provides less solace than it once did. Senior officials say the intelligence reports flowing over their desks in recent months argue that even if democratic institutions take hold, the insurgency may strengthen. And that possibility has created a quandary for an administration that desperately wants to equate democracy-building with winning the war, but so far has not been able to match the two."