Political Wrap: Rove and the Midterm Elections

NPR's Ron Elving discusses the Role of Karl Rove role in the 2006 midterm elections.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Tomorrow, on TALK OF THE NATION, a new report says US emergency medical system is overburdened, under-funded and fragmented. Guest host Joe Palka will be here with a look at the problems of the emergency medical system tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION. In a few minutes, your letters on levees, same sex marriage and sports nuts.

But first, let's turn to NPR Washington Editor, Ron Elving. A long standing legal cloud over Washington, our White House aid. Karl Rove has passed. His lawyer says Rove will not be indicted in the investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's identity in 2003. That's when the name of Covert Operative Valerie Plame appeared in the news media. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the Bush Administration over the invasion of Iraq, and claims that Plame was outed in retaliation. Under federal law, it's illegal to identify undercover CIA operatives. For almost three years now, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has investigated the source of the Plame leak. During the investigation, Rove testified to a federal grand jury five times. One White House official has been indicted in the case. That's I. Louis Scooter Libby, the president's former chief of staff, who faces charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The Vice President may end up being a witness in that case.

The decision not to file charges against Rove removes serious legal and political questions that were frustrating the White House in the run up to November's mid-term elections. If you have questions into the investigation about the leak are what this decision means to the White House, or for Karl Rove, give us a call, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Email is talk@npr.org.

Ron Elving, NPR Senior Washington Editor is with us here is studio 3A. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, reporting:

Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: So is this vindication for Karl Rove?

ELVING: Karl Rove is in the clear. Karl Rove is now sitting pretty. He is home free. But whether or not it's vindication might be still to come. There are a couple of other aspects of this that could still visit themselves on Karl Rove. One of them, of course, is his security clearance. There was a completely separate complaint issued and a number of members of congress have complained that whatever else you want to say about the way Karl Rove behaved in this matter, whether or not he should be indicted or whether or not he should be dragged before the grand jury five times as he was, you have to make a separate issue of whether or not he behaved properly give he has a national security clearance and that's why he had some of this information. By even having the conversations that he had, even if he didn't commit a crime, even if he's not going to be charged.

CONAN: And let's point out that Scooter Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, was not indicted for the leak, he was indicted for lying about his conversations to federal investigators to the grand jury - essentially for covering up whatever it is he may have done, allegedly - and that Karl Rove also misspoke to the grand jury and to federal prosecutors, but appears to have made the case that he did so inadvertently.

ELVING: Two different things between Rove and Libby. In Rove's case, he went back to the grand jury and volunteered a piece of information that he had subsequently come to learn was going to come to the grand jury's knowledge; and by doing so, he put himself in somewhat better order than Mr. Libby. And number two, the other difference was they had different attorneys.

And Robert Luskin, the attorney for Karl Rove, seems to have sat down with the prosecuting attorney, in this case the independent council, Patrick Fitzgerald, and laid out a persuasive case for why what Rove had done, in terms of his, let us say, less than complete cooperation in his first couple of appearances and in talking to the FBI, was not an indictable offense. And apparently, even provided testimony, under oath, to the effect of something - we don't know exactly what yet - but we're told he actually provided testimony to the grand jury as the attorney to Karl Rove, and that that all wound up persuading Patrick Fitzgerald that there was a material difference between the behavior of Scooter Libby on the one hand and Karl Rove on the other; one to be indicted and the other to be kicked loose.

CONAN: And, indictments or no, this entire episode - we've learned a great deal abut it in terms of Mr. Fitzgerald's disclosures and various legal documents -but that this was - this came directly from the top, from the president of the United States, who then directed his vice president to run this operation.

ELVING: The vice president was also particularly concerned about what Joe Wilson had written in his op-ed in The New York Times, because he sensed in it an implication; that Wilson had been sent to Africa to check out these allegations of Iran seeking - or Iraq, rather - seeking this nuclear material. And that he, in a sense, the vice president himself, was in some manner involved in sending Joe Wilson.

He really wanted to squelch that as fast as he could, and make it clear he'd had no hand in sending Joe Wilson to Africa. Of course, the White House was also terribly upset about the substance of what Joe Wilson was saying, but there was no such connection between Niger and Iraq, in terms of supplying something for the making of some sort of nuclear weapon. This was the precise moment in our entire Iraq war saga - going back to early 2003, the first months, the spring of 2003 - when our troops there were failing to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been the primary, at least immediate, proximate cause or justification for our invading Iraq.

CONAN: And that's where this ties back in to the origins of the Iraq war. The doubts that many people have about the administration's justifications for that conflict, the testimony that Secretary of State Powell gave before the United Nations Security Council, so much of which we subsequently learned was wrong.

ELVING: That's why this case, while it does reduce to some rather fine points of law and to some rather close calls, if you will, in terms of what behavior is indictable and which is not, and while it does get complicated, it does have roots. It does have a connection to an enormously important political question, which is: Why did we go into Iraq? What did we know? When did we know it? What were the justifications truly in the mind of the administration, as opposed to those that were used to sell the country on the war?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And this news comes - that Karl Rove will not be indicted - he apparently found out last night as he landed, I think, in Manchester, New Hampshire to make an address to Republicans in Manchester. And all the reports of that meeting that we read in the newspaper this morning seem to suggest it was an especially robust effort by Karl Rove.

ELVING: Yes, rather rip-roaring. Karl Rove usually expresses himself pretty directly. But he has felt, I think, some degree of restraint, because of this cloud, as you described it, over him. I don't know whether or not Karl Rove has ever really feared that he was going to be indicted. There was a point back in October when it was widely reported he was going to be indicted. And, of course, depending on which blogs you read, you may have seen in recent weeks one reporter or another saying with great certainty that he had been told that, yes, Karl Rove had already been indicted and it was just being kept secret. Well, now we know none of that was true.

CONAN: Let's get a listener on the line. And by the way, if you'd like to have a question about this: 800-989-8255. Stephanie(ph) is joining us: Stephanie calling us from Flagstaff, Arizona.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Yes, I'm, my question is, when Scooter Libby got indicted there was a whole hoopla about the president and the vice president saying that the information was, in fact, declassified, and that it really wasn't a leak because the information was declassified.

And so my question is, was it - if it was declassified, then why is this an issue anymore? Why - you know, why would Karl Rove be indicted?

CONAN: Well, I guess Ron, Karl Rove would have been indicted for not telling the truth to the grand jury at one point or another. But this issue of declassification if - is it a leak, in fact, if the president or the vice president, who has authority to do this, says this isn't secret anymore?

ELVING: Fine point of law here, but it is a leak if you receive the information in the proper course of your duties and know that it's classified and then pass it on to a reporter. That's a violation of the law. But no one's been charged with that. Scooter Libby was not charged with that. No one has been charged with that.

And the argument has been right along in this entire matter that the people who discussed Valerie Plame's identity on behalf of the administration have said that they did not learn it in the course of their official duties; they got it from reporters; that it was planted in their mind as information by people who called and asked them questions about Valerie Plame. And, of course, that has, as the caller rightly suggests here, that has real effect as to what they can be charged with.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Stephanie, thanks very much.

STEPHANIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay.

STEPHANIE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And this also goes back to the idea of an administration which has a reputation for being closed-mouthed at various times on any number of subjects, using the old Washington game, the leak process, the luncheons between Judy Miller and Scooter Libby to leak damaging information about critics.

ELVING: Absolutely. And this administration does not differ from its predecessors in using leaks to advance its view of things, to advance its desire, to achieve certain policy ends and have certain attitudes come back to it from the public. They do everything they can to get their message out, as they would say, and they use both news conferences that are perfectly open and covered on broadcast outlets and by anyone who cares to, and they also use the more surreptitious backroom kinds of contacts that administrations have always used.

The difference is that this particular administration has tried so hard to limit any use of leaks that isn't authorized from the very top of the administration. And, as we saw in this particular case, we are talking about the very top; we're talking about the president and the vice president.

CONAN: Well, let's get Sarah(ph) on the line: Sarah calling from Springfield, in Virginia.

SARAH (Caller): Yeah, I'd like to ask a question concerning Karl Rove's performance while he has been under what one may consider a cloud of potential indictment. He has still, for example, in December, when the domestic surveillance matter came out, managed to be part of a strategy to turn that around into the limited terrorist surveillance act. And that limited what was a political disaster for the administration, at least at the time.

And I'd like to know if you think that this has really affected Karl Rove's performance, or has Karl Rove's tactics begun to fail the administration at large?

CONAN: What do you think, Ron?

ELVIN: It's a broad question. Let's just talk about that one particular issue, the NSA eavesdropping program that was revealed in The New York Times last December. Immediately, a lot of critics of the administration pounced on that and said, look, they're spying on Americans. They're spying on residents of the United States. They're spying on people who are here, for all we know, legally, and we really don't know how far this goes; they're clearly pushing the envelope beyond the envelope. This is a violation of the Constitution. So said the critics.

At the time, Karl Rove, as the caller said, immediately pounced on that and said let's have the United States divide between those people who think this NSA eavesdropping program is some kind of outrage and those people who think that what we need to do to protect ourselves from terrorists is exactly what we expect our president to do.

CONAN: And thus far, the opinion polls, at least, show that - at least on the terrorist surveillance program that that report reported by The New York Times last December - subsequent reports have come out - but the public does tend to support the administration.

ELVING: The public certainly supports the idea that we need to take extraordinary measures to protect ourselves from another 9/11. If you put it in those kinds of terms, as of course Karl Rove and the rest of the administration do, then the public is generally with them.

If, on the other hand, you ask the question more the way the ACLU might ask the question, you can get a somewhat different response in the polls. But Rove is very good at finding that sensitivity point, where the general public, the typical American, will say, well, maybe this is an instance where we need to trust the president, trust the administration not to abuse the extraordinary tools, but to have extraordinary tools.

CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much for the call.

More on this later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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