It’s something of a stretch to proclaim Karl Rove, the Machiavellian political adviser to President Bush, innocent. But in this case, he just might be. And there’s been something positively unseemly about the transparent glee with which many Democrats have been calling for Rove to be frog-marched out of the White House.
That glee is a form of tribute, really. It’s an acknowledgment of just how successful (and ruthless) Rove has been—as a political strategist, in building Bush’s political empire, and in forging a solid Republican majority in Congress.
So why would he be so stupid as to leak Valerie Plame’s professional identity?
In the matter of Plame, it’s entirely possible that Rove isn’t the culprit and is guilty of nothing more than talking about her with a reporter, although, two years ago when this first surfaced, the White House said that he had not. That doesn’t mean Rove betrayed her name knowingly, or knew Plame was undercover—two provisions of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, a law that is extremely difficult to prosecute.
It could be that Robert Luskin, Rove’s lawyer, is being entirely truthful when he says that Rove testified voluntarily before the federal grand jury, never invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination, and has been assured by prosecutors that he is not a focus of the investigation into who leaked Plame’s name.
In their zeal to nail Rove, liberals and progressives might be missing the real story. Rove says he first learned about Plame’s status from reporters. If so, somebody had to tell those reporters.
A clue as to who told the journalists comes from who the reporters are. Matthew Cooper, Time’s correspondent, says he talked with Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, after he talked with Rove. Libby also has claimed that he did not talk with reporters about Plame.
The leak originally hit print in a column by Robert Novak, who is tight with Bush’s neocon crowd. But the most intriguing figure is Judith Miller, The New York Times’ reporter now in jail for not revealing her source of the information about Plame. Previously, she was most notorious as the credulous scribe who printed, on page one, mountains of prewar lies about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, lies often sourced to (among other people) Iraqi National Congress leader and former Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was a favored protégé of the neocon war hawks who pushed the Bush White House into war, a cabal led by Cheney himself. Miller was their favored mouthpiece.
It’s no stretch to picture a situation in which the neocons became alarmed when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson publicly criticized the Bush team for pushing discredited evidence that Hussein tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from the African country of Niger. The neocons’ response was to send a warning to other prospective dissidents by going after the messenger—to discredit Wilson, Plame’s husband, just as this administration has attacked Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill, and various other high-profile critics of administration policy before him.
Karl Rove is not the only figure in the Bush administration who plays nasty. But these men are not stupid. They would not have leaked such an explosive secret about Plame, one that endangered CIA agents and compromised national security, without some level of deniability. One reason it’s hard to imagine Rove as the culprit is that he’s simply too smart to blurt out something like this.
Those people wanting Karl Rove’s head probably aren’t going to get it. Unless he’s indicted and convicted, there are too many doubts about his guilt, and he is too indispensable to Bush for the president to fire him. Even if Rove becomes an even greater political liability.
But that doesn’t mean heads aren’t going to roll somewhere. By all accounts, the investigation of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is expanding rapidly. It is probably, at this point, encompassing far more than the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
In all likelihood, this is about more than Karl Rove, more than simply getting back at Wilson for his criticisms of the administration. This is about taking on members of the Bush administration who were, and are, so committed to war, so committed to empire, that compromising national security is less important than maintaining the political momentum necessary to launch an illegal invasion.
In this way, the leaking of Plame’s identity goes much more to the heart of the Bush administration than it would if it were a simple case of a political operative exacting vengeance. This is, once again, all about the lies that the Bush administration used to justify its war. As with the Downing Street Memo, we are learning more and more about just how desperate some members of the Bush administration were to have their war.
It’s easy and fun to imagine Karl Rove in handcuffs. It’s far more damning to get to the heart of what actually happened here. In all likelihood, Rove did not do what he is accused of. But somebody did.