CIA Leak Case Straddles Law, Politics

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The investigation of the leak that revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame raises complicated questions that can't be immediately answered. Was a crime committed? Were Bush administration ethical standards breached?


Questions about White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove--What did he know? When did he know it? What did he say to whom? When and why?--have bedeviled the White House this week. Mr. Rove has denied naming a CIA agent to journalists in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. But the president's chief adviser has admitted that he talked to reporters who called him and asked about her. It is a federal crime to intentionally disclose the identity of an undercover agent. The timing of Mr. Rove's conversations with reporters about the CIA agent has political significance as well. In the lead-up to the war, the agent's husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, had publicly criticized the administration's claim that Iraq had sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. President Bush has said he will withhold judgment on the matter until more is known. NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, joins us.

Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING reporting:

My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Are we any closer to answering some of the questions I rattled off in this case that began with Ambassador Joe Wilson writing a Op-Ed piece in The New York Times where he questioned the basis of some of the administration's claims?

ELVING: Not in a final sense, but we're narrowing the range of potential answers. We know now that Karl Rove did have conversations with reporters who called him about this whole matter of Joe Wilson going to the African nation of Niger and who sent him. And there had been some implication that he was sent by higher-ups in the White House or the CIA. And the White House wanted to get out the information that in their view he was sent by a woman working in the CIA, who happened to be Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. And Karl Rove's wanting people to know that he never used her name and, therefore, did not identify her.

SIMON: What is in the notes that Time magazine's reporter Matt Cooper turned over? Do we know?

ELVING: In those notes, Matt Cooper told his editors that Karl Rove had confirmed to him that the wife of Joseph Wilson was the person who was responsible for him being sent to Niger. And not someone else, such as Vice President Cheney or CIA Director George Tenet, whom, by implication, had been suggested as the people who sent him to Niger previously.

SIMON: Is there a difference between a legal case and a political case?

ELVING: Absolutely, there always is. And if it's not possible to prove that Karl Rove or anyone else was individually responsible for linking Valerie Plame to Joe Wilson and for telling these reporters that she was a CIA official, in the course of, of course, trying to undermine or discredit Joe Wilson's version of the facts and what was going on in Niger and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which is ultimately the importance of all this--it's not just about a couple of people or five or six people, it's ultimately about the case for war that the Bush administration was making in 2003. If we can never establish who actually made this information known publicly, if there was no real crime committed here by anyone we can identify, it's still possible that either someone has told a lie to the grand jury, which would be perjury, and that would be a criminal case, or that at a minimum, ethical standards that the Bush administration had set for itself were bruised, bent, broken in such a way that the credibility of Karl Rove and other people in the administration who have been defending him will be damaged by this, and that's a political case.

SIMON: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott.

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