The Widening Investigation into the Plame Leak
NEAL CONAN, host:
According to an article in today's Washington Post, the special prosecutor investigating who leaked the identity of a CIA operative to the media has actually cast his net much, much wider. The case goes back to 16 words in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
(Soundbite of State of the Union address)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
CONAN: Those 16 words forced a retraction from the White House later, and they forced Ambassador Wilson, Joseph Wilson, to go public and say that he had been to Niger to investigate those reports two years earlier at the behest of the CIA, and he said that the administration knew, according to his reports, those reports were untrue.
Well, joining us now is The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei, one of the reporters on this story. He joins us from the paper's studios here in Washington, DC. Good to talk to you again.
Mr. JIM VANDEHEI (The Washington Post): Good to be here.
CONAN: Now as you describe in the article, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation seems to be going in two directions stemming from those words in the State of the Union address; one about the efforts to discredit Joseph Wilson.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Right. I think we've all thought of this as an investigation into who leaked Joseph Wilson's wife's name to the media, and it turns out from our reporting that he has cast a much wider net, and he's looked at the much broader effort by this White House to both discredit Wilson, but also sort of protect President Bush from any blame for putting those 16 words that you mentioned earlier into the State of the Union address. And in doing so, he talked with two former CIA directors, talked to several folks at the State Department and even interviewed a stranger that columnist Bob Novak had ran into in the street on Pennsylvania Avenue.
CONAN: Well, part of it involved the decision to have the CIA accept responsibility for failing to excise those 16 words from the State of the Union.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Correct. And if you remember, that was a big deal a couple years ago about this whole idea of was President Bush forthcoming about the intelligence he used to justify the war? And at that time, there was a bureaucratic tussle, if you will, going on between the CIA and the National Security Council and the White House about who would actually accept blame, because the CIA had actually alerted White House officials to the fact that they didn't think that that wording, the 16 words, should be in the State of the Union address. Yet at the end of the day, it was George Tenet, then the CIA director, who pretty much took the fall, who came out publicly and said, you know, `I should not have been in there and it was basically my fault.'
CONAN: And according to your article, this was discussed at a meeting between the CIA and then deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Correct. And if you remember, I mean, Hadley and the National Security Council is essentially the White House--I mean, that is really the intelligence and national security clearinghouse center for President Bush, and they very much wanted Tenet to come out and make that statement and play some role behind the scenes and making sure that it was the CIA and not President Bush who had to sort of have that embarrassment of coming out and saying, `Yes, those 16 words should not have been in the State of the Union.'
CONAN: We're talking with Jim VandeHei at The Washington Post about an article on the investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame's name. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So this is another aspect. Why would the special prosecutor--the crime that may have been committed here was--it is a crime to knowingly leak the name of an undercover CIA operative or maybe somebody lied about that. That's another possibility. Why this other aspect?
Mr. VANDEHEI: It's a good question. What's intriguing about covering this whole investigation is we don't now much from Fitzgerald, who's the special prosecutor in this case. Most of our reporting and most of the stories you've heard about are based on people who've gone before the grand jury, have been interviewed by Fitzgerald himself, or represent clients in the case, so what you're doing is you're talking to folks and trying to figure out what questions are being asked? What direction does Fitzgerald seem to be headed in? I think the common assumption is that he's looking, A, at the root crime of did someone knowingly unmask a covert CIA agent, knowing that the government was trying to keep Plame's name secret?
But also, in the course of the investigation, he could be looking at perjury or obstruction of justice or conspiracy to obstruct justice. If you think of sort of all the Washington scandals past, often, it's not the crime that gets people in trouble, but it's what happens in the course of investigating that crime, whether it's a cover-up or whether it's a witness changing testimony from one interview before the grand jury to the next.
CONAN: And it should be pointed out that we don't know that a crime has been committed. Nobody's been indicted. No charges have been made, but...
Mr. VANDEHEI: Absolutely.
CONAN: ...to get a judge to agree to call these reporters in--and, of course, Judith Miller of The New York Times is currently in jail for refusing to identify her sources--to get a judge to agree to do that, presumably the special prosecutor had to present some convincing evidence that there was a crime involved here.
Mr. VANDEHEI: That is certainly the assumption of all the lawyers involved in this case. They just don't believe that the prosecutor would push a case this far, jail a reporter, you know, file contempt charges against another, if he wasn't serious and didn't have some evidence of some crime. But like you pointed out, we don't know. We don't know that any crime was committed in this instance. What we do know and I think what has really made this a political firestorm is that early on, the White House unequivocally said they had nothing to do with the leak of Valerie Plame's name whatsoever. Karl Rove was not involved whatsoever. And that turns out to be untrue. I mean, we no know that Karl Rove, at the very least had talked to reporters about her, whether it was directly using her name, but her role at the CIA. So that seems to contradict the public denials that we heard from the White House a couple years ago, which has generated a lot more interest politically, if nothing else, from Democrats who've really tried to make this a big issue.
CONAN: Not just Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, the president's political adviser, but the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Right. Though his role is even more mysterious. We know much less about Scooter Libby. We can't even most often ly--get his lawyer on the telephone. We don't know exactly who he talked to and what he talked to them about, and I think that's one of the things that I'm certain Fitzgerald has been looking at, and the common assumption is, you know, that he's putting some pressure on Judith Miller because he feels like she has some information that can tell him one way or the other about different--the role of different White House figures in this probe.
CONAN: Well, I guess most recently, the special prosecutor during the Miller hearings said that he was close to an end to his investigation, so we may find out soon. It's gone on for 18 months already. Jim VandeHei, thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. VANDEHEI: Have a good day.
CONAN: Jim VandeHei covers the White House for The Washington Post. He joined us from the newspaper's studios here in Washington, DC.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.