Published on Friday, October 21, 2005 by the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Uncharted Waters? Bush's Leaky Boat Edges Nearer to the Rocks
by Michael Gawenda
After his meeting with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, President George Bush told the press conference he would answer two questions.
A score of hands shot up, but every question was the same: how was Bush managing to do his job with scandals and problems plaguing his Administration?
How could he not be distracted, with the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, indicted on corruption and conspiracy charges; the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, being investigated over insider share trading; Harriet Miers, his nominee for the Supreme Court, under attack by conservatives of all stripes; and above all, the CIA leak investigation by the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald extended to the most senior White House officials, including the Vice-President, Dick Cheney?
With a bemused Abbas looking on, Bush could barely control his anger as he insisted that he was not distracted by "background noise".
It could lead to the indictment of Karl Rove and Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, as well as other White House and Cheney staff. It might even destroy Cheney.
It began as an attempt by Administration officials to discredit the former diplomat Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband. Wilson had accused Bush and Cheney of basing their case for war in Iraq on intelligence they knew was false. The crisis now threatens to engulf Bush and will at the least seriously weaken his presidency.
"Of course the President is concentrating on the big issues, but the Fitzgerald investigation and the possible indictment of Rove and others is the big elephant in the room," one unnamed White House official told CNN.
Washington is abuzz with infighting, leaking by White House aides against each other and talk of indictments. They wonder if Fitzgerald has got a White House official to "roll" and implicate "co-conspirators".
This week, in an attempt to protect the President, White House aides leaked a story that Bush was furious with Rove back in 2003 for the clumsy and inept way Rove had tried to discredit Wilson. Several days later another leak claimed Rove and Libby had exchanged information about their contact with reporters about Plame in the days before Novak blew her cover.
Despite the rumors and leaks, no one knows what Fitzgerald - who runs a tight ship - will do. There have been hardly any leaks from his office.
Online bookmakers, as good a source as any, say the odds of Rove having to leave the White House have moved from from 6-1 to odds-on in recent weeks.
Wilson and Plame are in some ways an odd pair. Last year, they appeared in a picture spread in Vanity Fair, driving a flash convertible, her blonde hair peeking out from a fashionable headscarf, his raffishly long hair blowing in the breeze, looking more like a Hollywood power couple rather than an ex-diplomat and a CIA agent.
Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA, on the recommendation of his wife, in early 2002 to check claims that Niger was getting ready to send yellow cake uranium to Iraq.
More than a year later, after Bush in his state of the union speech in January 2003, said British intelligence had confirmed that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium for a nuclear weapons program from Africa, Wilson wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times accusing the Administration of knowingly using false intelligence about Saddam's alleged attempt to buy African uranium.
A few days later, Novak outed Plame and four months later, Fitzgerald was brought in to investigate who had leaked her name to Novak, which is a criminal offence. At the time, White House officials insisted that there had been no leaks from the Administration. And Bush said if there had been leaks from the White House, the people responsible would be fired.
Almost two years later, it is clear that a number of administration officials, including Rove and Libby, had indeed, at the very least, talked to reporters about Wilson being married to a CIA agent who had recommended him for the Niger mission.
The big question now, apart from who will be indicted by Fitzgerald on charges that could include perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy - all based on alleged lying to Fitzgerald's grand jury - is whether Cheney knew what Libby was doing and how much Bush knew about Rove's attempts to discredit Wilson.
At the least, it seems Rove's career might be over and Libby - an architect of the Bush Administration's "pre-emptive war" policy after September 11, 2001 - could end up in jail.
What would it mean if Rove was forced out of the White House? For more than 31 years, since Rove met Bush in Texas and starting planning his political career, the two have been virtually inseparable.
David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, who has argued that the President would never have nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court had Rove not been distracted by the Fitzgerald inquiry, says losing Rove would be a "devastating blow" to the White House.
"He is truly the indispensable man," he says. "The distraction over the past weeks with Hurricane Katrina and Harriet Miers offers a glimpse of White House decision-making without him."
As for Libby, once a hero of the neo-conservatives at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the Herald was unable to get any of the institute's leading lights to defend him on the record.
Off the record, one said that Libby was a brilliant man who, together with his mentor, the former deputy defence secretary and current World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, had provided the intellectual muscle for the war in Iraq and for Bush's unilateralist "pre-emptive war" policy.
If both Rove and Libby are forced out of the White House, the Administration, beset by so many problems and challenges, would be seriously weakened. And if Cheney was implicated it would be in uncharted waters.
Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.