This past weekend, a pundit and a journalist each reported that Karl Rove, Bush's uber-strategist (and now, officially, the deputy White House chief of staff), was a source for Time magazine's Matt Cooper, who has resisted cooperating with a court order to reveal his sources to Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the Bush administration leak that revealed undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. (Plame, aka Valerie Wilson, is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a Bush administration critic.) Last week, after the Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal from Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller (who also was subpoenaed by Fitzgerald for her sources), Time magazine decided to cooperate with Fitzgerald and turn over Cooper's notes and e-mails. (Cooper said he disagreed with -- but understood -- his employer's decision; Miller and the Times vowed to continue resisting.) Appearing on The McLaughlin Group -- which was taped on Friday -- commentator Lawrence O'Donnell said that the documents handed over by Time to Fitzgerald would reveal that Rove had been Cooper's source. The next day, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek posted a piece that reported the following:
"The e- mails surrendered by Time Inc., which are largely between Cooper and his editors, show that one of Cooper's sources was White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, according to two lawyers who asked not to be identified because they are representing witnesses sympathetic to the White House. Cooper and a Time spokeswoman declined to comment. But in an interview with Newsweek, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, confirmed that Rove had been interviewed by Cooper for the article."
O'Donnell's comment and Isikoff's report set off a wave of reaction. But a careful reading of the available facts leads to this unsatisfying conclusion: not so fast.
The issue at hand is the identity of who told conservative columnist Robert Novak that Plame was an undercover CIA official working on counter-proliferation (that is, anti-WMD) matters. On July 14, 2003, Novak published a piece that was essentially a conveyor belt for White House criticism of Joseph Wilson. A week earlier, Wilson had written a much-noticed op-ed piece in The New York Times that argued that George W. Bush had misled the nation in his January 2003 State of the Union speech by claiming that Iraq had been shopping in Africa for uranium to be used in a nuclear weapons program. In his article, Wilson revealed for the first time that he had been dispatched to Niger in February 2002 to investigate rumors of such Iraqi activity and had reported back that it was highly unlikely that Iraq was procuring weapons-related uranium there. Wilson's article -- which followed his previous criticism of the administration for launching the war in Iraq -- placed him in the line of fire. Republican and conservative allies of the White House blasted away. In the course of this attack, Novak wrote the piece that outed Wilson's wife and suggested that Wilson's trip to Niger had been a nepotistic junket of some sort.
Novak seemed to attribute his disclosure about Plame (which destroyed her career and perhaps threatened anti-WMD operations) to two unnamed "senior administration officials." (I use the word "seemed" because the attribution was technically indirect, though it appears clear these were Novak's sources.) Two days after Novak's column was published, I became the first journalist to write that these two Bush administration sources might have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which makes it illegal for a government official (not a reporter) to reveal the identity of an undercover intelligence official. (It would not be until September 2003 that the CIA would ask the Justice Department to investigate this leak and an official inquiry would begin.) Then on July 17, 2003, Time posted a piece by Matthew Cooper, Massimo Calabresi and John Dickerson headlined, "A War on Wilson?" The article noted the following:
"And some government officials have noted to Time in interviews (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband's being dispatched [to] Niger to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein's government had sought to purchase large quantities of uranium ore, sometimes referred to as yellow cake, which is used to build nuclear devices."
This passage raises several obvious questions. Who told Time about Plame? Were these "government officials" the same as Novak's "two senior administration officials"? And when did these government officials tell Time about Plame? Presumably it was before Novak's column appeared, though these two sentences don't say that outright.
Which brings us to Rove.
His name has emerged in this scandal before. In the summer of 2003, Joseph Wilson appeared at a public event in Seattle and was asked about the investigation of the Plame leak. Wilson replied, "Wouldn't it be fun to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs?" Wilson subsequently conceded that he had no basis for accusing Rove of leaking his wife's CIA identity. But to explain his wish to see Rove in prison, he pointed to a news report that maintained that Rove had told Hardball's Chris Matthews after the leak that Wilson's wife was "fair game." On October 10, 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked if Rove and two other White House aides had ever discussed Valerie Plame with reporters. McClellan said he had spoken to Rove and the others and that they had "assured me they were not involved in this."
David Corn is the Washington, D.C., editor of The Nation (www.thenation.com), where this article first appeared.