What’s the Real Story on Karl Rove?

When MSNBC’s chief political correspondent Lawrence O’Donnell broke the Karl Rove story on the July 4th weekend, for a few days it looked like it was going nowhere. O’Donnell had announced on NBC’s McLaughlin Group that the President’s alter-ego and chief political confidante was the source who had told Time’s Matt Cooper that Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, had sent him to Niger, where Wilson had served as U.S. Ambassador in the Clinton administration, to find out if Saddam Hussein really was in the market for uranium oxide, “yellowcake,” which would certainly mean he was still trying to produce nuclear weapons.

If it were true, this would mean Rove might have perjured himself before the federal grand jury — which had been called to ascertain if one or more government officials in revealing the name of a covert CIA operative had committed a felony. For the last two years, while this story has simmered in Washington, it had been assumed Rove was in the clear. Syndicated columnist Bob Novak, who first wrote about Valerie Plame’s role in Wilson’s mission in a July 14, 2003 column, had subsequently explained that he didn’t know she was a “covert” CIA agent, but thought she was a Langley desk jockey, an “operative.” Novak refused to reveal the names of the two administration sources who confirmed Plame’s role, but he did say it wasn’t Rove. In addition, Rove signed a general waiver of confidentiality that would seem to have released Matt Cooper from his promise of confidentiality. So if it were Rove, Cooper could name him and not face jail time for remaining silent.

This seems to be why O’Donnell’s assertion that it was Rove seemed unlikely. Yet then, within days, Rove’s lawyer announced that Rove had talked to Cooper about Wilson and his CIA “wife,” but that he had never mentioned her by name. Hmmmm. Cooper still refused to name his source, but when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case and perhaps rule he didn’t have to reveal his source, Time magazine decided to turn Cooper’s notes over to the grand jury. At this point, knowing he would eventually tagged anyway, Rove gave Cooper a specific waiver of confidentiality to discuss his conversation with him back in 2003. Judith Miller of the NYTimes, who had reported on the Plame story, having been told by someone in the administration about it, now sits in a federal prison because she refused to reveal who that person is — someone obviously not Rove. More about her later.

All of this led me to believe there had to be more to this story than the surface noise, or Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald would not have spent two years of his life trying to get to the bottom of things — when it never seemed clear that Ms. Plame was a covert agent, traveling openly back and forth to her desk at Langley. It’s now clear that there may be something VERY big going on here to explain all this time, money and effort. We don’t know what it is, but it is in the hands of the prosecution and the federal courts, summarized in eight pages that Lawrence O’Donnell could write on July 7, on Ariana Huffington’s website, “The One Very Good Reason Karl Rove Might Be Indicted.” The headline is shocking in itself, coming from O`Donnell, a respected journalist, a man I`ve known since he served as chief of staff to the late Sen. Pat Moynihan in the 1980s.

In his July 7 blog, the “one good reason” he cites involves eight blank pages in a February decision by Circuit Court Judge David Tetel who joined his colleagues in ordering Cooper and Miller to reveal their sources. Tetel had earlier indicated he would dissent because the matter did not seem to be a danger to national security, but after looking at the evidence presented by the prosecution he decided they had to testify because, as O`Donnell puts it, “he found that the press privilege had to give way to the gravity of the suspected crime.” He also notes: “All the judges who have seen the prosecutors secret evidence firmly believe he is pursuing a very serious crime, and they have done everything they can to help him get an indictment.”

I certainly have no idea what`s in those eight blank pages, but I do know the Plame case involved President Bush`s assertion in his State of the Union Address prior to the decision to invade Iraq that Saddam Hussein had been attempting to buy “yellowcake,” clear proof that he was still attempting to reconstitute a nuclear arsenal. It turns out that before the President made this assertion to the nation, members of his team, including CIA Director George Tenet, knew the documents supposedly proving Iraq’s interest in yellowcake had been forged, and they also knew Joseph Wilson had returned from Niger months before the State of the Union address with a report that the information was false.

It was only after the invasion that Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on July 6, 2003, laying out the case that the Bush administration had misled the nation. And it was within days that the press contacts began from the administration to the press, aimed at discrediting Wilson as a partisan who had supported Senator Kerry. Rove did complicate matters by calling Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” telling him that Plame was “fair game.”

There have been all kinds of “impeachment” movements kicking around the Internet from antiwar advocates. The most serious followed revelations of the so-called Downing Street Memo several weeks ago, with British intelligence suggesting that Mr. Bush had made the firm decision to get rid of Saddam in the summer of 2002 and that he would make the intelligence “fit the policy.” But I did not take any of that seriously because, in the end, we could never know if the President truly decided to lead the nation to war on false information or if he himself was misled by his team. Remember CIA Director George Tenet`s “slam dunk” on Saddam`s WMD?

The Niger “yellowcake” story is a more serious problem for the administration, because it would be practically impossible to believe the President was misled at that late date if the man closest to him, Karl Rove, knew there was nothing to the Niger story but let the President go ahead with it anyway without telling him it was false. The precaution taken in the President`s address was to put the story to “British intelligence,” so that would hopefully take care of that. But unless we know what`s in those eight blank pages we can`t be sure this still small cloud won`t grow and darken.

Judith Miller`s willingness to go to jail for at least four months is another matter. We do know there was no journalist in America more responsible for promoting the idea that Saddam was hiding chemical and biological weapons. She`d written a book about it and it has subsequently been revealed that her primary source in the months before and after the war was Ahmed Chalabi. Now a member of the new National Assembly in Iraq, Chalabi is supposedly “out of favor” with the Bush administration on CIA reports that he was revealing classified information to Iran, but that is clearly a charade and Chalabi remains as close to the neo-cons as he ever was. His connections go back to his days as a fellow classmate at the University of Chicago with Paul Wolfowitz, now World Bank president, and the chief architect of the war. In 2003, Miller would have no reason to get a phone call from anyone in the White House about the Plame affair, but because she was a trusted advocate for the war among the neo-cons, she might have gotten the leak from another administration source who would not give her the clearance Miller got because it might blow the whole business sky high.

I’ve still been wondering what is in those eight blank pages. In the week that elapsed since O’Donnell focused on them, there had been no other effort that I saw in the press to even speculate on “the gravity” supposedly therein. Last night, at least, I caught the Lou Dobbs show on CNN where he interviewed John Dean, the man largely responsible for doing in his boss, Richard Nixon, when he served as White House counsel during the Watergate period. Here was the exchange that interested me, when Dobbs commented on Judith Miller being in jail when there is still no evidence of a crime being committed:

DEAN: No question. It`s a travesty that she`s in jail at this point and she`s protecting some source, who is not in jail or who is not even fessing up to relieve her of that responsibility. But you know, there are a lot of potentials here that — how this may unwind and the reason I think the fact that there`s more to happen, is that when I read the opinion of Judge Hogan in the contempt proceeding, and I read the court of appeals decision of Judge Tatel…

DOBBS: Judge Hogan, the judge who sentenced Judith Miller for contempt.

DEAN: Correct. And Judge Tatel was the — on the Appellate Court that reviewed that decision before it went to the Supreme Court and both of them have looked at the sealed record. And in that record, which they redacted in their opinion, but in their look at it, they said, this case is not where it started, it has made a dramatic turn, and this information that is now being requested by this special counsel, Fitzgerald, is needed. And therefore, they could see no basis to get around the problem of holding her in contempt or Cooper, if he wasn`t willing to testify. So, something`s happened in this case, Lou, that we don`t know and that`s why I think it may be — well, it may be close to being over, we — the fat lady hasn`t gotten near the stage yet.

JUDE WANNISKI is a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, expert on supply-side economics and founder of Polyconomics, which helps to interpret the impact of political events on financial markets.