Looks like Karl Rove did break the law, the same federal law that got Martha Stewart sentenced to six months in prison.
It now appears that Rove, President Bush’s chief of staff, may have lied to the FBI in October 2003—a federal crime—when he was questioned by federal agents investigating who was responsible for leaking information about a covert CIA operative to the media.
During questioning by the FBI about his role in the Plame affair, Rove told federal agents that he only started sharing information about Plame with reporters and White House officials for the first time after conservative columnist Robert Novak identified her covert CIA status in his column on July 14, 2003.
But Rove wasn’t truthful with the FBI what with the recent disclosure of Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper’s emails, which reveal Rove as the source for Cooper’s own July 2003 story identifying Plame as a CIA operative, and show that Rove spoke to Cooper nearly a week before Novak’s column was published and, according to previously published news reports, spoke to a half-dozen other reporters about Plame as early as June 2003.
"It was," KR said, "Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized (Wilson’s) trip," Cooper’s July 11, 2003, email to his editor, obtained by Newsweek, says. “Wilson's wife is Plame, then an undercover agent working as an analyst in the CIA's Directorate of Operations counterproliferation division. (Cooper later included the essence of what Rove told him in an online story.) The e-mail characterizing the conversation continues: "not only the genesis of the trip is flawed an[d] suspect but so is the report. he [Rove] implied strongly there's still plenty to implicate iraqi interest in acquiring uranium fro[m] Niger .. "
Moreover, evidence suggests that President Bush was aware as early as October 2003 that Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, were the sources who leaked Plame’s undercover CIA status to reporters and after the president was briefed about the issue the president said publicly that the source of the leak will never be found.
Furthermore, a few aides to Condoleeza Rice, then head of the National Security Council, may have played a role as well by being the first officials to learn about Plame’s role as a CIA operative and gave that information to Rove, Libby and other senior administration officials.
The disclosure of Plame’s name and CIA status was an attempt by the White House to discredit Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war who had alleged that President Bush misspoke when he said in his January 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq acquired yellow-cake uranium from Niger.
Wilson was recommended by Plame, his wife, to travel to Niger to investigate the yellow-cake claims but he said publicly that he Cheney’s office sent him there. Cheney did in fact contact the CIA at first to arrange the mission but Plame ultimately recommended Wilson. Still, in February 2002, he went to Niger and reported back to the CIA that there was no truth to those claims.
Here’s the fullest account yet of how the events leading up to the disclosure that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative unfolded, and how it all leads back to Rove. But first let’s get to the real story behind the leak, the catalyst behind this issue.
Bush and senior administration officials mislead Congress and the public into supporting a war predicated on the fact that Iraq was concealing weapons of mass destruction that threatened its neighbors in the Middle East and posed a grave threat to the United States.
In his State of the Union address in January 2003, two months prior to the Iraq war, Bush said Iraq tried to buy yellow-cake uranium, the key component in designing a nuclear bomb, from Niger, which was the silver bullet in getting Congress to support military action two months later. To date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and the country barely had a weapons program, according to a report from the Iraq Survey Group.
Like other officials, including former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, both of whom provided evidence that Bush and senior members of his administration of being obsessed with attacking Iraq shortly after 9/11 and manipulating intelligence reports as a way to get Congress and the public to back the war, the White House launched a full-scale attack against Wilson beginning in June 2003, when Wilson was quoted anonymously in various news reports as saying that the 16 words in Bush State of the Union address alleging that Iraq bought yellow-cake uranium from Niger was totally untrue.
On July 14, 2003, Novak first disclosed Plame by name in his column as well as her undercover CIA status, citing two “senior administration officials.” Novak said Wilson wasn’t trustworthy because his wife recommended him for the trip to Niger.
According to a preliminary FBI investigation, White House officials, including Rove and Libby, first learned of Plame’s name and CIA status in June 2003 when questions surrounding Wilson’s Niger trip were first brought to the attention of Cheney’s aides by reporters, according to an Oct 13, 2003 report in the Washington Post.
“One reason investigators are looking back (to June 2003) is that even before Novak's column appeared, government officials had been trying for more than a month to convince journalists that Wilson's mission wasn't as important as it was being portrayed,” the Post reported.
Several CIA officers assigned to the White House and working mainly on the National Security staff may have been the first individuals to have learned that Plame was an undercover operative and that Wilson was her husband. According to Oct. 13, 2003 story in the Post, a “former NSC staff member said one or more of those officers may have been aware of the Plame-Wilson relationship” and briefed Cheney and Rove about her status, that she was married to Wilson and that she recommended him for the fact-finding trip to Niger.
A May 6, 2003, column by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times was the first public mention of Wilson's trip to Niger but Kristoff’s column did not identify Wilson by name. Kristoff had been on a panel with Wilson four days earlier and said that Wilson told him that intelligence documents that proved Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger were forged and the White House should have known that before allowing Bush to include it in his State of the Union speech.
Wilson told Kristoff he could write about his trip and the forged documents but asked the columnist not to print Wilson’s name as the source behind those statements. The column also mentioned for the first time the alleged role Cheney’s office played in sending Wilson to Niger.
“That was when Cheney aides became aware of Wilson's mission and they began asking questions about him within the government,” the Post reported, citing an unnamed administration official.
Shortly after Kristoff’s column appeared in the Times, a handful of reporters started searching for Kristoff’s anonymous source.
At this time Wilson spoke to two congressional committees that were investigating why Bush had mentioned the uranium allegation in his State of the Union address. Also in early June, Wilson told his story to The Washington Post on the condition that he not be named. On June 12, 2003, the Post published a detailed account of Wilson’s trip and the fact that there was no truth to the claims that Iraq had tried to purchase yellow-cake uranium from Niger.
Beginning that week, officials in the White House, Cheney's office, the CIA and the State Department repeatedly played down the importance of Wilson's trip in interviews with several reporters, and his oral report to the CIA, which was turned into a 1 ½ page CIA intelligence memo for the White House and the National Security Council. By tradition, Wilson’s identity as the source, even though he traveled to Niger on behalf of the CIA, was not disclosed.
As soon as the Post’s story was published a number of officials in the Bush administration became concerned and started questioning who Wilson was and why he was criticizing the president, a senior administration official told the Post.
By Wilson’s own account, he said he ratcheted up the pressure on the White House to come clean about its error in giving credence to the Niger uranium claims by calling some present and former senior administration officials who knew then National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice, asking his colleagues to tell Rice she was flat wrong in saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" on June 8 that there may be some intelligence "in the bowels of the agency" but that there was no doubt the uranium story was true.
Wilson said Rice told him through intermediaries that she was uninterested in what he had to say and urged Wilson to tell his story publicly if he wanted to state his case. So he did.
On July 6, 2003 Wilson was interviewed for a story that appeared in the Washington Post and accused the White House of "misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war." That same day he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times which said that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
The very next day, July 7, 2003, the White House admitted it had erred in including the references about uranium in Bush's State of the Union speech. Two days later, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post in an article published Sept. 28, 2003.
Those two officials were Karl Rove and Lewis Libby.
“The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson,” the Post reported in the Sept. 28, 2003 story.
On July 12, 2003, two days before Novak wrote his column, a Washington Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame's name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson's report.
That source was Karl Rove and the unidentified reporter was Walter Pincus who covers the White House.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper’s emails show that Rove gave Cooper the same exact information about Plame that he gave to the Post. Moreover, Rove called several other reporters that week in July 2003 and reportedly said that Wilson’s wife was “fair game” because Novak had already blew her undercover status by identifying her in his column.
A few months later, on Oct. 7, 2003, President Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said during a press conference that the White House ruled out three administration officials—Rove, Libby and Elliot Abrams, a senior official on the National Security Council, as sources of the leak—a day before FBI questioned the three of them—based on questions McClellan said he asked the men.
A day later Rove told FBI investigators that he spoke to journalists about Plame for the first time after Novak’s column was published—a lie, it appears—based on Time reporter Matthew Cooper’s emails, the contents of which were reported by Newsweek earlier this month.
That same day in October 2003, in an unusual move, Bush said he doubted that a Justice Department investigation would ever turn up the source of the leak, suggesting that it was a waste of time for lawmakers to question the administration and for reporters to follow up on the story.
"I mean this is a town full of people who like to leak information," Bush told reporters following a meeting with Cabinet members on Oct. 7, 2003. "And I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's lots of senior officials. I don't have any idea.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, responded to the president’s statement in an Oct. 10, 2003, interview with the New York Times.
“If the president says, 'I don't know if we're going to find this person,' what kind of a statement is that for the president of the United States to make?'' Lautenberg asked. “Would he say that about a bank-robbery investigation?”
During this time the White House was facing a deadline on turning over documents, emails and phone logs to Justice Department officials probing whether or not the leak came from the White House. Bush said that the White House could invoke executive privilege and withhold some “sensitive” documents related to the leak case leading many Democrats to believe that the White House had something to hide.
At the same time, the White House first started to lay the groundwork for a defense, specifically related to the role Rove played in the leak and whether he or anyone else in the administration knew Plame was covert CIA operative and intentionally blew her cover in order to undercut Wilson’s credibility.
On Oct. 6, 2003, McClellan, in response to questions about whether Rove was Novak’s source, tried to explain the difference between unauthorized disclosure of classified information and "setting the record straight" about Wilson’s public criticism of the administrations handling of intelligence on Iraq.
“There is a difference between setting the record straight and doing something to punish someone for speaking out,” McClellan said. "There were some statements made (by Wilson) and those statements were not based on facts," McClellan said. "And we pointed out that it was not the vice president's office that sent Mr. Wilson to Niger. (CIA Director George) Tenet made it very clear in his statement that it was people in the counter proliferation area that made that decision on their own initiative."
The difference is crucial in that knowingly making an unauthorized leak of classified information is a federal crime. But repeating the leak when it has already been reported may not be considered a serious offense.
Still, when the Justice Department failed to convict Martha Stewart on insider trading charges, prosecutors had enough evidence to convince a jury that the style maven lied to federal investigators and obstructed justice. She wound up with a felony conviction and six months in jail.
Now that the evidence shows that Karl Rove and others White House officials lied to federal investigators about what they knew and when they knew it maybe they too will meet the same fate.
Jason Leopold is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold's website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.
© 2005 Jason Leopold