In an August 2003 talk here, former diplomat Joseph Wilson offhandedly mentioned that it might be fun to see George W. Bush's key political adviser, Karl Rove, "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." Wilson later worried he'd put too fine a point on the then-nascent scandal over the outing of his wife as a CIA officer. Maybe he'd gotten caught up in the exuberance of the animated Shoreline Conference Center crowd. But with his return to Seattle for a sold-out talk at Town Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 26, Wilson's Shoreline remark two years ago seems like a classic understatement. The indictment noose this week was dangling over not only the leak uproar but a handful of Republican congressional scandals stretching from D.C. to Seattle. They're converging Watergate-like, replete with cover-ups and stonewalling, threatening to turn that one-man frog-march into a Pennsylvania Avenue perp walk.
The special prosecutor's news release and indictment. (U.S. Department of Justice) MORE
"I've heard there will be from two indictments to two dozen, but it's all speculation," says Wilson by phone, speaking of the possible outcome this week of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's 22-month probe into the leak. Conservative pundit Robert Novak first published the name of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, in his syndicated column, noting that she was an "operative" for the CIA, apparently clueless that she might—and did—sometimes work undercover. "Actually, her name is Valerie Wilson," the ex-ambassador corrects me as we talk, putting the kibosh to "Plamegate." (He personally refers to the scandal, he says with a chuckle, as "L'affaire Valerie.") The July 14, 2003, Novak column now appears to have been sourced by the White House, with Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, evolving as prime suspects. A Tuesday, Oct. 25, New York Times report suggested this daisy-chain scenario: Then–CIA Director George Tenet told Cheney, who told Libby, who may have told Rove, and who both then leaked to reporters. Wilson thinks Libby is "involved up to his eyeballs in this," adding that it is clear from the grand jury testimony of Time correspondent Matthew Cooper "that Mr. Rove was a source, the primary source, exposing the identity of my wife. It is clear he was involved in the pushing of this story even before the Novak column. To me, that's a frog-march offense."
California-born, Wilson's a onetime Olympic Peninsula carpenter who got his foreign career start in Seattle, spurred by a meeting with influential University of Washington public-affairs professor Brewster Denny. "I owe it all to him," Wilson says. He went on to become acting U.S. ambassador in Iraq during Operation Desert Shield (the Gulf War build-up) in 1990, helped free 150 American hostages seized by Iraq, and was the last American official to meet with Saddam Hussein before that earlier Gulf War began. (Saddam offered all the oil the U.S. could ever want in return for his unfettered taking of Kuwait, which Wilson flatly rejected.) President George H.W. Bush called Wilson "a true hero," though George W. Bush hasn't been so complimentary. That might have something to do with Wilson's role in opposing Junior Bush's Iraq policy. Wilson says that, at one point, he was being followed on speaking tours by White House talking points, sometimes e-mailed in advance to interviewers, in an attempt to undermine his credibility. In recent talks, he cites the White House's "defamatory campaign" against him, arguing, "It is in the DNA of the people in the administration to go after anyone who questions them."
Though polls indicate a lack of widespread public interest in Wilsongate due to its confusing story line, that's likely because at times it seems written by Lewis Carroll. Fitzgerald, who once prosecuted terrorists, now finds himself in the wonderland of the Oval Office, interviewing the president and vice president over a case with elements of possible treason. At least seven White House officials and staffers have appeared, some repeatedly, before Fitzgerald's grand jury, including Susan Ralston, Rove's secretary, who formerly worked in the D.C. lobbying offices of the Seattle-based Preston Gates Ellis law firm. Novak, the guy who started it all, continued to roam free while Judith Miller of The New York Times, who didn't write a Plame story, went to jail. Most boggling, Libby admits discussing Plame with Miller, who, even after 85 days behind bars to protect one source, Libby, now says she's unsure who first gave her Plame's name. In the midst of this, White House counsel Harriet Miers, who might have been advising Rove and/or Libby, emerged from the rabbit hole to become a Supreme Court nominee, only to withdraw her name this week, ostensibly to avoid having to reveal internal documents related to her role as White House counsel. Curiouser and curiouser!
Wilson had no idea he was starting this firestorm, he says, when he wrote a 2003 op-ed piece for The New York Times, headlined "What I Did Not Find in Africa," debunking Bush claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger. That was just one misleading claim, Wilson says, that Bush gave for going to war—which, at the cost of 2,000 U.S. military and tens of thousands of civilian lives, is the biggest scandal of all. "I would say the president, when he spoke to the nation on this issue, misstated the facts," Wilson says. "Who is responsible? Certainly somebody on his staff. The whole world knows about Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, but no one knows who put misleading information into the president's [State of the Union] address?"
The Bush White House originally denied Rove and Libby were the sources for Valerie Wilson's identification in Novak's column, which included this passage: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate. . . . " Knowingly revealing the identity of a covert agent is illegal, carrying a prison term of up to 10 years; lesser charges, such as obstruction, are more likely in this case. Cheney, whose apparent role in the leak has grown in recent weeks, has hired an attorney. The Washington Post says Rove reportedly told the grand jury that he first heard about Plame from Cheney aide Libby. Bush, who had promised to fire anyone involved, now says he doesn't want to "prejudge." The chance that Bush himself isn't involved is, as they say in Texas, between slim and none, and slim just left town.
But if anyone is thinking impeachment, that's not going to happen, says Wilson. "No, the practicality of it is that both houses of Congress are in the hands of Republicans," he notes. "When it became clear to the world that Rove had leaked classified info, not a single Republican of national stature bothered to stand up and say he was wrong to do that. If you have that mentality—if they're going to look the other way when one of theirs leaks classified info and not react—you have to assume party loyalty will prevail."
Besides legs, this scandal has tentacles. Wilsongate intertwines by circumstance and party affiliation with a number of other alleged Republican wrongdoings. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is being investigated for insider trading. Deposed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was mugged and fingerprinted Thursday, Oct. 20, on a charge of conspiracy and money laundering of campaign funds in Texas. DeLay's onetime political ally, ex–Preston Gates Ellis superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, is charged with wire fraud and conspiracy over his co- purchase of a gambling boat company, and he's under investigation by a federal task force for allegedly defrauding clients and providing illegal perks to DeLay and other legislators. (See "A GOP Lobbyist in Cuffs," Aug. 17.) DeLay also faces House ethics charges, although they won't immediately be pursued because "we don't have the resources," claims the ethics committee chair, Rep. Doc Hastings. The Pasco Republican says his foot-dragging has nothing to do with receiving campaign money from DeLay or contributions from Abramoff.
Many of these connections were established during the period Abramoff worked for Preston Gates Ellis, from 1994 to 2001. His fellow lobbyists at the firm's D.C. office included two former DeLay aides, Mike Scanlon and William Jarrell. Abramoff, a top Bush fund-raiser, is now one of four former members of Preston Gates burdened by indictment or investigation. Scanlon is being probed in connection with the alleged rip-off of Abramoff's Indian casino clients. Bush appointee David Safavian, who until his recent arrest was chief of staff of the General Services Administration, is accused of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Abramoff's attempts to buy land from the government. And Rove's secretary, Ralston, appeared before the White House leak-case grand jury. Ralston followed Abramoff from Preston Gates to Abramoff's new lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, in 2001. Then, on Abramoff's recommendation, she was hired by Rove. A fifth Preston Gates alum, Patrick Pizzella, went on to a top Bush administration appointment as an assistant secretary of labor. He was part of Abramoff's Preston Gates team that lobbied to retain what some call slave-labor wages in the sweatshops of the Northern Marianas—the back story of which is also being probed by congressional investigators.
An FBI affidavit filed this month in D.C. added a few more degrees. It says Safavian, who had been Bush's federal procurement director, in part lied about his backdoor dealings with Abramoff so he could join the lobbyist and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, on a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland. (DeLay has taken three similar trips for which Abramoff also allegedly picked up costs illegally.) As recently detailed by The Washington Post, Ney is being investigated for that and other Abramoff ties, and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is similarly under the spotlight for favors he allegedly performed for Abramoff, who then steered $130,000 to Burns' political action committee. Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, a onetime Preston Gates and Microsoft consultant and Bush 2004 campaign official, was also on the 2002 golfing trip with Abramoff and Safavian. Reed, along with tax guru Grover Norquist— a Bush fund-raiser and ex–business partner of Safavian—are implicated in the questionable funneling of Preston Gates client funds to back an antigambling campaign run by Reed, a million-dollar money flow that began in Seattle. (See "Choctaw Cash," July 6.) Got all that?
And, of course, the scenery usually includes Mercer Island Rabbi Daniel Lapin. The well-connected Seattle radio talk-show host introduced DeLay to Abramoff, who is a board member of Lapin's charity, Toward Tradition. A Bush fund-raiser, Lapin is co-chair of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. Lapin receives funding from major conservative backers, Abramoff included. An Oct. 16 report in The Washington Post described the seemingly circuitous route of some of those funds. In 2000, Lapin's religious charity received a $25,000 donation from an online gambling company, eLottery, a lobbying client of Abramoff and Preston Gates. Some of that money might have, at least indirectly, been used to pay for a Virginia consulting firm registered to the wife of Tony Rudy, an aide to Tom DeLay. About that time, it turns out, Rudy had been instrumental in scuttling an antigambling bill that eLottery and Abramoff wanted killed. The timing of the victory, the hiring, and the check, says Lapin, was a coincidence. As Lewis Carroll wrote, everything has got a moral—if you can find it.
Joseph Wilson is uncertain how events will shake out, though he personally is doing just fine. He recently told an audience that he wasn't interested in public office, being someone who had "too many wives" (Valerie's his third) and, when young, took "too many drugs. And, yes, I did inhale." With a best-selling book, The Politics of Truth, and a speaking tour under way, Wilson's now making a living off the White House's apparent indiscretions. "I've got a great life, and what I'm doing now is the right thing to do," he allows when I ask if he wouldn't mind being back in the enveloping mist of the Olympic Peninsula, as he was in the mid-1970s, out of the spotlight, crafting a mountainside retreat. "Once a carpenter, always a carpenter," Wilson says, brightening. He turns 56 next month. "I guess if things don't work out, I can always put my tool belt back on."