Murray Waas, in a post detailing Novak’s testimony to the Grand Jury, implied that Novak and Rove have conspired to obstruct justice in the Plame Leak. Recent revelations—especially inconsistencies in Rove’s testimony—lend credence to that claim. To try to figure out how the WH conspired, when they started doing so, and what Fitzgerald might be able to prove they’ve done, I’ve put together a timeline of the WH response to the Plame leak. Let me clear—this is not a timeline of leak events themselves (instead, I rely on the dkosopedia timeline). Rather, it is a narrative of how, given the evidence, the WH response to the Plame Leak seems to have changed over time.
Much of this is my interpretation. And I leave open questions below. But I think it shows that the WH miscalculated. And that even as late as this week, they’re still scrambling to figure out how to respond.
The Smear: March to July 2003
Wilson made Dick Cheney look bad. And his staff was going to get him. Rather than refuting what Wilson said (which would have been impossible on two counts. First, that Cheney is not a member of the reality based community, so a factual refutation would have seemed suspicious in the first place. And, that Wilson was right.), Dick’s staffers decide to find whatever dirt they could to discredit Wilson. As Wilson describes:
After my appearance on CNN in early March 2003, when I first asserted that the U.S. government knew more about the Niger uranium matter than it was letting on, I am told by a source close to the House Judiciary Committee that the Office of the Vice President -- either the vice president himself or, more likely, his chief of staff, Lewis ("Scooter") Libby -- chaired a meeting at which a decision was made to do a "workup" on me. As I understand it, this meant they were going to take a close look at who I was and what my agenda might be.
The meeting did not include discussion of how the president or his senior staff might address the indisputable, if inconvenient, fact that the allegation I had made was true. In other words, from the very beginning, the strategy of the White House was to confront the issue as a "Wilson" problem rather than as an issue of the lie that was in the State of the Union address. That time frame, from my CNN appearance in early March, after the administration claimed they "fell for" the forged documents, to the first week in July, makes sense, as it allows time for all the necessary sleuthing to have been done on us, including the discovery of Valerie's name and employment.
At this point, this is in no way remarkable (for this Administration). Nor, as Howard Fineman described this weekend, did they probably think consciously about breaking the law (which is why I don’t think they intentionally used Miller or someone like Gannon as a cut-out—at this point they didn’t think they had anything to hide).
It's unlikely that any White House officials considered that they were doing anything illegal in going after Joe Wilson. Indeed, the line between national security and politics had long since been all but erased by the Bush administration.
They just did what they always do. Find the dirt (or, if need be, invent it) and run with it.
Playing Dumb: July to September 2003
Novak publishes his column on July 14. Within two days, David Corn recognizes what has happened and wonders whether it has been a violation of the law. At this point, it seems Novak’s first instinct is to defend his own actions. From Corn,
Novak tells me that he was indeed tipped off by government officials about Wilson's wife and had no reluctance about naming her. "I figured if they gave it to me," he says. "They'd give it to others....I'm a reporter. Somebody gives me information and it's accurate. I generally use it." And Wilson says Novak told him that his sources were administration officials.
And from Phelps and Royce of Newsday, who publish a story pretty much confirming the outing,
Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," he said. "They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it."
The WH doesn’t seem to take this seriously yet. When asked, they issue blanket denials that a crime took place, ridiculing the idea. Otherwise, they keep silent, hunkering down in the hopes that by ignoring the issue, calls for an investigation won’t gather enough momentum to actually take hold.
Behind the scenes, though, the CIA starts the process of asking for an investigation into this leak.
The Fix Is In October to December 2003
The WH’s hunker down period ends on September 28, with the publication of a WaPo article reporting that DOJ will conduct an investigation. The article also quotes a Senior Administration Official damning the smear operation:
a senior administration official said that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife.
"Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.
It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another. Asked about the motive for describing the leaks, the senior official said the leaks were "wrong and a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility."
The anonymous official is widely believed to be either Tenet or Powell. Either would qualify as a “Senior Administration Official.” Tenet might make such a statement to cap the pre-investigation stage, to reassure CIA personnel he took this seriously (also, the Dana Priest byline would support a Tenet quote). Powell might be genuinely disgusted by the smear—as Fineman characterized Powell’s involvement this weekend,
who should carry the freight on the following Sunday's talk shows? The message: protect Cheney by explaining that he had had nothing to do with sending Wilson to Niger, and dismiss the yellowcake issue. Powell was ruled out. He wasn't a team player, as he had proved by his dismissive comments about the "sixteen words."
Further, as we now know, the State Department is intimately involved in this, largely because a memo at the center of the outing came from State’s intelligence service, the INR. In any case, the article provides incontrovertible evidence that the smear was intentional, malicious, and systematic.
The WH response—publicly, at least, was to switch from a general denial to a technical denial. Now, it was no longer that the claim that an Operative had been outed was ridiculous. Now, it was that Rove, Libby, and Abrams had not been involved in the leaking of classified information.
Q: Earlier this week you told us that neither Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams nor Lewis Libby disclosed any classified information with regard to the leak. I wondered if you could tell us more specifically whether any of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?
A: I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. And that's where it stands.
Q: So none of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?
A: They assured me that they were not involved in this.
Q: They were not involved in what?
A: The leaking of classified information.
The WH almost certainly coordinates this technical defense with Novak (and, less interestingly, with Clifford May). Because Novak writes a column that mirrors the WH’s new technical denial strategy perfectly.
First, I did not receive a planned leak. Second, the CIA never warned me that the disclosure of Wilson's wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else. Third, it was not much of a secret.
During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA's counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger. When I called another official for confirmation, he said: "Oh, you know about it." The published report that somebody in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue.
A big question is her duties at Langley. I regret that I referred to her in my column as an "operative," a word I have lavished on hack politicians for more than 40 years. While the CIA refuses to publicly define her status, the official contact says she is "covered" -- working under the guise of another agency. However, an unofficial source at the Agency says she has been an analyst, not in covert operations.
Federal investigators have been skeptical of Novak's assertions that he referred to Plame as a CIA "operative" due to his own error, instead of having been explicitly told that was the case by his sources, according to attorneys familiar with the criminal probe.
Really? You think? Waas continues:
Also of interest to investigators have been a series of telephone contacts between Novak and Rove, and other White House officials, in the days just after press reports first disclosed the existence of a federal criminal investigation as to who leaked Plame's identity. Investigators have been concerned that Novak and his sources might have conceived or co-ordinated a cover story to disguise the nature of their conversations.
At this stage, it seems likely that the WH was coordinating with Novak and other conservative columnists to spread the technical exoneration story.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the White House seems be working to ensure the investigation would amount to no more than a whitewash. They do this in several ways.
First, Alberto Gonzales and DOJ several times stall the flow of evidence. It takes four days between the time the investigation started and the time Gonzales announces it officially to the WH. Then, Gonzales waits 11 hours between the time he sends a general email alerting WH personnel of the investigation and the time he sends an email detailing the specific kinds of evidence that should be saved.
Interestingly, it took 4 days after that ``official'' launch for the Justice Department to call White House Counsel Gonzales and notify him of the official investigation. Gonzalez then asked for an extra day before the Justice Department gave the White House the official notice, which means all documents and records must be preserved.
Then, Gonzales holds the evidence for two weeks to “review it for relevancy.” In other words, after
the WH seems to have “fixed” its story with Bob Novak, it buys time before it
turned over evidence to the FBI.
The WH (or DOJ) also makes sure that Bush or Rove supporters will control all aspects of the investigation. As a Democratic House Judiciary Committee dissent details (PDF),
[Karl Rove] worked on Attorney General Ashcroft’s campaigns throughout the 1980's and 90's raking in nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in fees. While at first blush, it might appear that the Attorney General wouldn’t be involved with the investigation on a regular basis, Associate Deputy Attorney General Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he regularly briefs the AG on the investigation. These conflicts existed not only between the Attorney General and likely targets of the investigation, but between lower level investigators and the President. Robert McCallum, the Assistant Attorney General who initially oversaw the investigation is an old friend of the President’s from Yale.
Throughout this early phase of the investigation, then, the WH has one of Bush’s old Skull and Bones buddies (McCallum) and John Ashcroft monitoring the course of the investigation.
The WH does two more things during this period. Perhaps to push back against the CIA for pushing this investigation (or perhaps to punish Tenet for speaking to the WaPo reporters?) they make damn sure not only Plame, but her front company Brewster Jennings, is outed. First, Administration officials admit that Brewster Jennings was Plame’s front company.
The leak of a CIA operative's name has also exposed the identity of a CIA front company, potentially expanding the damage caused by the original disclosure, Bush administration officials said yesterday.
After the name of the company was broadcast yesterday, administration officials confirmed that it was a CIA front. They said the obscure and possibly defunct firm was listed as Plame's employer on her W-2 tax forms in 1999 when she was working undercover for the CIA.
Then, Novak writes another article, inventing a reason (Plame’s political donations) to publish the name of the company.
The WH also starts to leak the INR memo that (it is now clear) is a central piece of evidence in the case. (Note, it seems like the WH was trying to declassify this memo back in July; they may have mentioned it to Novak and Cooper.) The WSJ first mentions the memo on October 17. Jeff Gannon and a few real news outlets mention it later that month. In a later Gannon piece that is no longer available, he says of the memo,
A memo written by an INR (Intelligence and Research) analyst who made notes of the meeting at which Wilson was asked to go to Niger sensed that something fishy was going on. That report made it to the outside world courtesy of some patriotic whistleblower that realized that a bag job was underway.
The classified document that slipped out sometime after the meeting put her name before the public, albeit a small group of inside-the-beltway types, but effectively ended the notion that she was still covert.
As the WaPo describes in December, the memo was an ongoing point of aggravation to the CIA.
But sources said the CIA believes that people in the administration continue to release classified information to damage the figures at the center of the controversy, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and his wife, Valerie Plame,
Sources said the CIA is angry about the circulation of a still-classified document to conservative news outlets suggesting Plame had a role in arranging her husband's trip to Africa for the CIA. The document, written by a State Department official who works for its Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), describes a meeting at the CIA where the Niger trip by Wilson was discussed, said a senior administration official who has seen it.
CIA officials have challenged the accuracy of the INR document, the official said, because the agency officer identified as talking about Plame's alleged role in arranging Wilson's trip could not have attended the meeting.
"It has been circulated around," one official said. CIA and State Department officials have refused to discuss the document.
The Real Investigation Begins January to June 2004
The WH whitewash seemingly fails on December 30, when Ashcroft recuses himself from the investigation and just after Patrick Fitzgerald is appointed prosecutor for the case. Right away, WH personnel are asked to sign waivers of confidentiality agreements, a move Bush had been resisting thus far. Fitzgerald also starts to go after some WH personnel with grants of immunity to get people to talk. And the Grand Jury interviews a number of Bush officials in sometimes combative interview.
Officials interviewed by the FBI include Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser; McClellan; Matalin; Levine; White House communications director Dan Bartlett; former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff; and Cathie Martin, a Cheney aide, according to the sources.
By the end of January, Fitzgerald subpoenas records
including Air Force One phone logs.
Of note, Fitzgerald asks interviewees to keep information confidential. Partly as a result (and, just as likely, because it became clear that obstruction charges were a possibility), the WH switches back into silence mode at this point. “I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”
The Real Investigation Expands into Obstruction (?) Charges June to October 2004
By the end of June, Fitzgerald begins to interview
journalists who have talked with Scooter Libby, after the journalists receive
limited waivers from Libby to speak. These include Glen Kessler,
Tim Russert, and Walter Pincus and
Then, Fitzgerald starts going after the testimony of Cooper (related to conversations we now know were with Rove) and Judy Miller. Cooper and Time Magazine are cited in contempt on August (after which he testified about his conversation with Libby), then in October (when Cooper wouldn’t testify about Rove). Miller is found to be in contempt in October.
The Administration remains largely silent during this period. At least about Plame. They’re pretty busy slamming John Kerry by claiming he is a coward and liar. (note—why didn’t Kerry hammer BushCO on their involvement with Plame during the election?)
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part October 2004 to July 2005
And then, just after Rove testifies, the Grand Jury grinds to a halt while the world waits to see whether Cooper and Miller will win their appeal of the contempt charge.
On the surface at least, the Plame investigation goes dead and the White House is silent.
There are, however, three events which might be related. First, on October 18 Karl Rove pulls a silly stunt on the campaign trail, laying down under the wheels of Air Force One. He had testified a few days earlier (October 15) in front of the Grand Jury. According to Murray Waas, Rove told the Grand Jury information that we now know to be false.
But Rove also adamantly insisted to the FBI that he was not the administration official who leaked the information that Plame was a covert CIA operative to conservative columnist Robert Novak last July. Rather, Rove insisted, he had only circulated information about Plame after it had appeared in Novak's column. He also told the FBI, the same sources said, that circulating the information was a legitimate means to counter what he claimed was politically motivated criticism of the Bush administration by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
Then, in a move that largely stupefied observers, Karl Rove gets a promotion to Deputy Chief of Staff in February. It isn’t clear why he was getting a promotion. As Dan Froomkin observes, the promotion doesn’t earn Karl any extra money. It gets him a new office, but Karl has always seemed like a man whose office says little about his stature anyway. I have wondered—but so far have had no one answer my question—whether this move might provide Karl more Executive Privilege protections in case a legal case is launched against the White House.
Then, in the week before SCOTUS recesses (and therefore, it was fairly clear by this point, in the week before SCOTUS refuses to take Miller and Cooper’s appeal), Karl makes comments that—even for him—are beyond the pale.
"Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Rove said. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."
Democrats (and liberals more generally) react furiously. But Republicans and the WH, perhaps predictably, jump to the defense of Karl Rove.
(Incidentally, at about the same time, Dick Cheney makes a comment which was also remarkable even for him, insisting the insurgents in Iraq were in their “last throes.”)
It seems like, throughout this waiting period, the WH knew what was coming. Karl probably lied to the Grand Jury in October (taking one for Bush, as it were?). In the interim, the Bush Administration seems to have made concrete moves to shore up support for Rove. And as I speculated at the time, Rove may have been preparing the ground for what happened after SCOTUS refused Cooper’s and Miller’s case.
The Public Spin
I asked in this post who was giving more advice right now: Rove’s lawyer telling Rove how to avoid jail, or Rove telling Luskin how to spin things in the public. I’m pretty confident we know the answer to that question is the latter. The WH (or certainly Karl Rove) is in full spin mode, simultaneously trying to smear critics (Cooper, Wilson, probably soon Fitzgerald?) while trying to resuscitate the now discredited narrow technicality defense they planned in October.
There are actually conflicting signals, though, what the WH spin strategy is. If Luskin is to be believed when he told Murray Waas that he hadn’t yet decided how much to leak, it suggests the WH is making it up on the fly.
On Tuesday night, as I was completing a blogging post that disclosed that Novak had been cooperating with federal authorities, I spoke to Luskin and told him that I was preparing a lengthier story detailing Rove's contacts with Novak and others. Luskin asked me to delay publication for a day or two, before deciding on what he wanted to say for the article. He said he would comment for the record regarding what he understood transpired between Rove and Novak.
I think there are indications that WH unity may be—and may have been—unraveling. As soon as it became clear that Rove and Libby might face consequences for this ratfuck, Rove turned on Libby.
Apparently, according to two journalist sources of mine, when Rove learned that he might have violated the law, he turned on Cheney and Libby and made it clear that he held them responsible for the problem they had created for the administration. The protracted silence on this topic from the White House masks considerable tension between the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President.
And it appears that Libby and Rove may be poaching each others’ plausible deniability defenses. Both, for example, apparently lay claim to the line, “Oh I heard that too.” (I understand Cooper says Libby used it in today’s article.)
Also, in a Michael Isikoff article it was revealed that the White House is worried about prosecutor interest in Rove.
But one of the two lawyers representing a witness sympathetic to the White House told NEWSWEEK that there was growing "concern" in the White House that the prosecutor is interested in Rove.
Why would they admit this, if they really are worried about Rove? It only serves to cement the notion that Rove might be guilty. Is a lawyer representing someone else at the WH—someone sympathetic to the WH but also under suspicion himself, someone like Libby—emphasizing Rove’s guilt to steer attention away from his client? And of late, it seems like it’s all Powell and his deputies all the time.
Powell was seen walking around Air Force One during the trip with the memo in hand, said a person involved in the case who also requested anonymity because of the prosecutor's admonitions about talking about the investigation.
It’s not clear how long we’ll remain in this phase. So far, the WH and Congress have resisted insulating themselves from any possible damage—but they also haven’t embraced Rove definitively. The Senate defeated a measure that would have stripped Rove—and probably Libby—of their security clearance. Now, Democrats are calling for Rove to lose his clearance for violating his non-disclosure agreement. But unless the Democrats can find a way to force the issue, the Administration and the Republicans will be able to sustain this strategy unless there are indictments or some Republicans sense it’s time to cut bait.
Meanwhile Fitzgerald has a few choices, it appears. He can wait until October to see whether Judy Miller gets sick of playing the jailed martyr. He can file criminal contempt charges against her—which might take the luster off her martyr syndrome and convince her to talk. Or Fitzgerald could begin to issue indictments (perhaps perjury against a lesser figure in an attempt to get that person to turn?) in an attempt to shore up the final pieces of evidence in the case.
In any case, at present we seem to be in the all-spin all the time phase. Funny thing is, for the first time Karl Rove doesn’t seem to be able to get ahead of the spin.
Update Made some simple grammatical changes.
Update 7/23 Changed a link to the WaPo that had gone dead.