CIA Leak Controversy Adds to Bush's Woes

Karl Rove

Questions about presidential adviser Karl Rove's role in the leak have put the White House under scrutiny. Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

A White House that has established itself as the most "leak-proof" in generations is in the midst of a growing controversy over who in the administration leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer to the press in mid-2003.

The reality is that even with a reputation for secrecy, this White House leaks when it wants to. Usually to float a trial balloon... or sometimes in what seems an attempt to distract the press from another story.

Timeline

This leak — whatever the source — has become a big problem for the Bush White House.

Q & A

The first important moment in this story was July 6, 2003, when former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, in an op-ed column for The New York Times, accused the administration of exaggerating claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify the war. In 2002 Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA to check on claims that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium for his weapons program. Wilson reported back to the CIA and the State Department that he'd found no such evidence. He went public via the Times op-ed page because the administration (including the president in a State of the Union address) continued to cite the Saddam-Africa connection to justify the war.

Then came the column by Robert Novak stating that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. Wilson was angry and accused the administration of leaking his wife's name and employer as revenge for his public criticism.

As a result of that Novak column, a federal investigation began.

By all accounts, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has lived up to his reputation as a serious hard-nosed investigator as he and his team of lawyers have sought interviews and used their subpoena powers to compel witnesses to testify before the grand jury. The witnesses sought have included many members of the Bush administration and many prominent journalists. One, The New York Times' Judith Miller, has been jailed for refusing to talk.

It is now known that the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, did speak to reporters about Valerie Plame. His attorney says Rove never mentioned her by name. One reporter, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, says that's true, but he adds that before he talked to Rove he didn't even know that Joe Wilson was married. By the time conversation with Rove was over, he knew there was a Mrs. Wilson and that she worked for the CIA.

In recent days, much of the focus has been on a State Department memo regarding Saddam Hussein and doubts analysts at State had about his access to weapons of mass destruction. The memo mentions Valerie Plame by name. It also says who she is married to. And it makes it clear that Plame's employment at the CIA should be treated as a secret.

The question is being asked: Who saw that memo? Is that how the leaker learned of Plame's connection to White House critic Joseph Wilson? It is also now known that that memo was included in a top-secret briefing book that was aboard Air Force One as President Bush flew to Africa in July 2003. It's a long flight to Senegal and a plane (even the president's) is a confined space. It's extremely easy for staffers to walk from cabin to cabin. To say, "Hey, isn't this interesting?" when leafing through a book of documents. I was on the president's plane that day, in the cabin in the back with the other members of the White House press pool. Needless to say the memo didn't find its way back to us.

I can say that as Air Force One left Washington that day, there was plenty of anticipation about the week ahead in Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. But no sense yet that we would spend so much time during the trip talking about Joseph Wilson. Nor could we know just how big the story of Wilson and his wife would become over the next two years.

As of this writing there is still a great deal we still don't know about this story. The investigation continues, and criminal charges may or may not be brought. The president who once pledged to fire anyone involved in the leak, recently modified that by saying if someone "committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

However it all plays out, the leak of Plame's name has become a troubling story for the Bush White House. The president's second term had already been marked by trouble: declining public approval in polls, stalled initiatives in Congress and continuing violence and difficulty in Iraq.

It's also proving a cautionary tale for journalists, a reminder of how little protection they have from prosecution when they make a promise of anonymity to a source.

It is interesting too, that even in the heat of the summer and despite all of the complicated twists and turns this case has taken, polls show that Americans are tuned in to the story. About half of all those surveyed say they are paying close attention to news regarding the CIA leak. And a large majority of those think that Rove, the man Mr. Bush has called "the architect" of his presidential campaigns, should resign or be fired if he leaked classified information.

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