Monday, July 25, 2005

Rove Rage

As the Bushies and their acolytes continue to engage in the time-tested Chewbacca Defense on the Rove/Plame game, the reality is that more facts are starting to come out, and the web of lies and deception is unraveling.

Whether the media care enough to do their jobs and investigate all angles and see this through, whether congressional Democrats care enough to hold the Bushies' feet to the fire on anything and everything, and whether the American public gives enough of a shit to do something about all of it at the next election -- well, that's another subject.

Fitzgerald has spent considerable time since the summer of 2004 looking at possible conflicts between what White House senior adviser Karl Rove and vice presidential staff chief I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury and investigators, and the accounts of reporters who talked with the two men, according to various sources in the case.

Libby has testified that he learned about Plame from NBC correspondent Tim Russert, according to a source who spoke with The Washington Post some months ago. Russert said in a statement last year that he told the prosecutor that "he did not know Ms. Plame's name or that she was a CIA operative" and that he did not provide such information to Libby in July 2003.

Prosecutors have also probed Rove's testimony about his telephone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in the crucial days before Plame's name was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak.

Rove has testified thathe and Cooper talked about welfare reform foremost and turned to the topic of Plame only near the end, lawyers involved in the case said. But Cooper, writing about his testimony in the most recent issue of Time, said he "can't find any record of talking about" welfare reform. "I don't recall doing so," Cooper wrote.

Both Libby's attorney and Rove's attorney declined to comment yesterday, as did Fitzgerald's office. The possible conflicts in the accounts given by Russert and Libby were first reported yesterday by Bloomberg News.

And throughout it all, there are paramount questions: what purpose did Rove's disclosure serve for the administration's agenda; i.e., why did he do it, as he clearly did? And what did Bush and Cheney know, and how long have they known it? This also is crucial -- have they been sitting on this knowledge for two years running, and dodging the issue with weasel words? Forget partisan politics for a second -- do their supporters find this sort of behavior acceptable, if indeed they've known about this the whole time?

It's coming down to a very unpleasant dilemma for Bush supporters to confront -- either Bush knew and has helped cover the knowledge up the whole, or he's so utterly incompetent, he really has had no idea what his helper monkeys are doing after hours.

Several years ago, back around the Harken mini-scandal I believe, I once said that Bush was either a crook or a schnook. That assessment holds truer than I ever thought it would. It's basically one or the other -- or both. After all, stupidity is how criminals usually get caught.

Frank Rich has more on how this could eventually envelop the entire administration.

PRESIDENT BUSH'S new Supreme Court nominee was a historic first after all: the first to be announced on TV dead center in prime time, smack in the cross hairs of "I Want to Be a Hilton." It was also one of the hastiest court announcements in memory, abruptly sprung a week ahead of the White House's original timetable. The agenda of this rushed showmanship - to change the subject in Washington - could not have been more naked. But the president would have had to nominate Bill Clinton to change this subject.

When a conspiracy is unraveling, and it's every liar and his lawyer for themselves, the story takes on a momentum of its own. When the conspiracy is, at its heart, about the White House's twisting of the intelligence used to sell the American people a war - and its desperate efforts to cover up that flimflam once the W.M.D. cupboard proved bare and the war went south - the story will not end until the war really is in its "last throes."

He's right. It's been something to watch this story take on a life of its own at long last, to gain the momentum it takes to roll past the 24/7 news cycle of crap and fluff. Considering its proliferation of helpful graphics and crawls and breaking news briefs, network news has devolved into a surprisingly inert product, barely registering above reality TV on the intellect meter a great deal of the time. So for a story like this, with its twists and turns and sequence of revelations, in the face of deliberate obfuscation by its principal players, it's a start.

Considering the monumental ramifications at the heart of it, it really shouldn't have taken so long to break, but again, with such an inert and complaisant media presence, I suppose we should all be grateful they're even bothering to cover it now, knowing what we all know.

Now, if there was a blowjob involved -- aside from the ones in Karl Rove's future in prison -- they'd have uncovered every miserable detail long ago.

Only 36 hours after the John Roberts unveiling, The Washington Post nudged him aside to second position on its front page. Leading the paper instead was a scoop concerning a State Department memo circulated the week before the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife, the C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame, in literally the loftiest reaches of the Bush administration - on Air Force One. The memo, The Post reported, marked the paragraph containing information about Ms. Plame with an S for secret. So much for the cover story that no one knew that her identity was covert.

But the scandal has metastasized so much at this point that the forgotten man Mr. Bush did not nominate to the Supreme Court is as much a window into the White House's panic and stonewalling as its haste to put forward the man he did. When the president decided not to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with a woman, why did he pick a white guy and not nominate the first Hispanic justice, his friend Alberto Gonzales? Mr. Bush was surely not scared off by Gonzales critics on the right (who find him soft on abortion) or left (who find him soft on the Geneva Conventions). It's Mr. Gonzales's proximity to this scandal that inspires real fear.

As White House counsel, he was the one first notified that the Justice Department, at the request of the C.I.A., had opened an investigation into the outing of Joseph Wilson's wife. That notification came at 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, but it took Mr. Gonzales 12 more hours to inform the White House staff that it must "preserve all materials" relevant to the investigation. This 12-hour delay, he has said, was sanctioned by the Justice Department, but since the department was then run by John Ashcroft, a Bush loyalist who refused to recuse himself from the Plame case, inquiring Senate Democrats would examine this 12-hour delay as closely as an 18½-minute tape gap. "Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence," said Senator Charles Schumer, correctly, back when the missing 12 hours was first revealed almost two years ago. A new Gonzales confirmation process now would have quickly devolved into a neo-Watergate hearing. Mr. Gonzales was in the thick of the Plame investigation, all told, for 16 months.

So Bush, per usual, was stupider like a fox in nominating a complete unknown. Fortunately, the daily media and the Democrats have not let it distract them from the T-bone at hand, though the Sunday morning wankfests were still on it.* Which is fine; if Roberts is a stealth Scalia rather than merely a center-right O'Connor replacement, that information too needs to be brought out. After all, we're going to be stuck with this guy for the next thirty years or so; we need to be diligent about finding out what he thinks about certain issues, and seeing how it jibes with the direction we want our country to head in.

I mean, we are an engaged, dynamic citizenry with a font of information at fingertips, and a passion -- nay, an unquenchable thirst -- for knowledge, are we not?

Thus is Mr. Gonzales's Supreme Court aspiration the first White House casualty of this affair. It won't be the last. When you look at the early timeline of this case, rather than the latest investigatory scraps, two damning story lines emerge and both have legs.

The first: for half a year White House hands made the fatal mistake of thinking they could get away with trashing the Wilsons scot-free. They thought so because for nearly three months after the July 6, 2003, publication of Mr. Wilson's New York Times Op-Ed article and the outing of his wife in a Robert Novak column, there was no investigation at all. Once the unthreatening Ashcroft-controlled investigation began, there was another comfy three months.

Only after that did Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel, take over and put the heat on. Only after that did investigators hustle to seek Air Force One phone logs and did Mr. Bush feel compelled to hire a private lawyer. But by then the conspirators, drunk with the hubris characteristic of this administration, had already been quite careless.

It was during that pre-Fitzgerald honeymoon that Scott McClellan declared that both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, had personally told him they were "not involved in this" - neither leaking any classified information nor even telling any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the C.I.A. Matt Cooper has now written in Time that it was through his "conversation with Rove" that he "learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the C.I.A." Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of "telling," "involved" or "this" is. If these people were similarly cute with F.B.I. agents and the grand jury, they've got an obstruction-of-justice problem possibly more grave than the hard-to-prosecute original charge of knowingly outing a covert agent.

Most fertile - and apparently ground zero for Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation - is the period at the very outset when those plotting against Mr. Wilson felt safest of all: those eight days in July 2003 between the Wilson Op-Ed, which so infuriated the administration, and the retaliatory Novak column. It was during that long week, on a presidential trip to Africa, that Colin Powell was seen on Air Force One brandishing the classified State Department memo mentioning Valerie Plame, as first reported by The New York Times.

That memo may have been the genesis of an orchestrated assault on the Wilsons. That the administration was then cocky enough and enraged enough to go after its presumed enemies so systematically can be found in a similar, now forgotten attack that was hatched on July 15, the day after the publication of Mr. Novak's column portraying Mr. Wilson as a girlie man dependent on his wife for employment.

On that evening's broadcast of ABC's "World News Tonight," American soldiers in Falluja spoke angrily of how their tour of duty had been extended yet again, only a week after Donald Rumsfeld told them they were going home. Soon the Drudge Report announced that ABC's correspondent, Jeffrey Kofman, was gay. Matt Drudge told Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post at the time that "someone from the White House communications shop" had given him that information.

Mr. McClellan denied White House involvement with any Kofman revelation, a denial now worth as much as his denials of White House involvement with the trashing of the Wilsons. Identifying someone as gay isn't a crime in any event, but the "outing" of Mr. Kofman (who turned out to be openly gay) almost simultaneously with the outing of Ms. Plame points to a pervasive culture of revenge in the White House and offers a clue as to who might be driving it. As Joshua Green reported in detail in The Atlantic Monthly last year, a recurring feature of Mr. Rove's political campaigns throughout his career has been the questioning of an "opponent's sexual orientation."

THE second narrative to be unearthed in the scandal's early timeline is the motive for this reckless vindictiveness against anyone questioning the war. On May 1, 2003, Mr. Bush celebrated "Mission Accomplished." On May 29, Mr. Bush announced that "we found the weapons of mass destruction." On July 2, as attacks increased on American troops, Mr. Bush dared the insurgents to "bring 'em on." But the mission was not accomplished, the weapons were not found and the enemy kept bringing 'em on. It was against this backdrop of mounting desperation on July 6 that Mr. Wilson went public with his incriminating claim that the most potent argument for the war in the first place, the administration's repeated intimations of nuclear Armageddon, involved twisted intelligence.

Mr. Wilson's charge had such force that just three days after its publication, Mr. Bush radically revised his language about W.M.D.'s. Saddam no longer had W.M.D.'s; he had a W.M.D. "program." Right after that George Tenet suddenly decided to release a Friday-evening statement saying that the 16 errant words about African uranium "should never have been included" in the January 2003 State of the Union address - even though those 16 words could and should have been retracted months earlier. By the next State of the Union, in January 2004, Mr. Bush would retreat completely, talking not about finding W.M.D.'s or even W.M.D. programs, but about "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

In July 2005, there are still no W.M.D.'s, and we're still waiting to hear the full story of how, in the words of the Downing Street memo, the intelligence was fixed to foretell all those imminent mushroom clouds in the run-up to war in Iraq. The two official investigations into America's prewar intelligence have both found that our intelligence was wrong, but neither has answered the question of how the administration used that wrong intelligence in selling the war. That issue was pointedly kept out of the charter of the Silberman-Robb commission; the Senate Intelligence Committee promised to get to it after the election but conspicuously has not.

The real crime here remains the sending of American men and women to Iraq on fictitious grounds. Without it, there wouldn't have been a third-rate smear campaign against an obscure diplomat, a bungled cover-up and a scandal that - like the war itself - has no exit strategy that will not inflict pain.

There really are almost too many threads to reliably follow in all this, which does help explain some of why it's taken so long for it all to gain traction. There simply aren't enough Americans who are politically rigorous enough to care about it enough to follow along, and this administration certainly won't do anything to help -- indeed, as with everything else, they've done all they can to thwart simply bringing information to the light of day. That's what they do, after all, when they're not busy concocting cockamamie schemes to grift rubes out of their pensions.

But the nut of this story is this -- that this White House has engaged in a systematic pattern of mendacity and obfuscation in order to either deflect attention from -- or outright embarrass or intimidate -- people who have been presumptuous enough to go public with their fact-based misgivings.

Worse yet, all this corruption has been in the service of things they've been completely wrong about. They fucked up, they know it, we know it. They lamely try to insist that long-term results will vindicate them, but even on that count, they appear dead wrong, for at least the next generation -- and by then we'll have our hands full with a whole 'nother set of problems.

The American media, if it cares even an iota for what shred of credibility they retain, needs to communicate these facts to the American public. They started a war on very shaky intelligence, and the evidence grows practically by the day that they knew said intel was shaky, but saw what they wanted to see. They can whinge all they want about how other major Western intel agencies had concerns too, as did Bill Clinton, but neither Clinton nor any of those allies were itching to start a war.

That's the thing -- they wanted this war; they wanted to invade, clearly. And they were wrong about the nature of the enemy; they were wrong about the presumed eagerness of Iraqis to be "liberated"; they were wrong about the organizational structure of the Iraqi society. And they've played dirty against the people who were right, and had the nerve to say so.

*A notable exception to the wankfests was Face The Nation. As noted here, Abu Gonzales did some dancin'.

What did White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card learn from Alberto Gonzales and when did he learn it...and what did he do with that knowledge? This "whole new can of worms" (to quote CBS News' Bob Schieffer, on this morning's Face The Nation) is to me the breaking news question of the day. Why? Because on today's Face The Nation, Alberto Gonzales admitted that he called Andrew Card right after he was notified that the Justice Department had opened its investigation of the Plame leak...even though he formally notified The White House staff 12 hours later.

On Face The Nation, Gonzales said the Justice Department contacted him at 8pm and, after responding by saying something to the effect that everyone had gone home for the night, Gonzales asked if it would be okay if he waited until 8am the next day to notify The White House Staff to "preserve all records" etc. Gonzales got permission to do so, but then - again this is Gonzales speaking on Face The Nation - he said he contacted Andrew Card to informally tell him what had happened.

I wish you could have seen Bob Schieffer's face as he came back from commercial break to his next guest, Senator Joe Biden, who he then took up this issue with. Bob Schieffer said to Joe Biden (I'm paraphrasing here...I'll post the transcript when it's available) "You know, everyone in The White House has these BlackBerrys. And you have to wonder what sort of message Andrew Card emailed at 8pm to the other people in The White House...what sort of documents could have been shredded in those 12 hours." There was little Joe Biden needed to add to what Bob Schieffer said. But Watergate - and the famous 18 1/2 minute gap on the audio recording (remember Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods posing for a picture in which she tried to demonstrate how she could have accidentally erased those 18 1/2 minutes from the tape?) - suddenly became the "pink elephant" in the room. You could see it on Schieffer and Biden's faces.

Biden, craven hack that he is, is exactly right. There's no reason for a 12-hour gap with the technology even the average Joe Shmoe has, much less the freakin' White House. Did they take shredding-party tips from Arthur Andersen and Kenny Boy Lay? As with those scandals, we'll probably never know the full extent of it.

Occasionally I'll catch CBS' Sunday Morning; its assemblage of mindless human-interest pablum fits well into the relaxing Sunday morning tableau of newspaper-reading over breakfast. Strangely, late in the show they will jump from some "Bill Geist profiles a hubcap-collector in East Overshoe, Kansas" nonsense to a studio opinion piece from either Ben Stein or Nancy Giles. Stein, naturally, is much more directly partisan than Giles, and more of a righty than Giles could be considered a lefty. Anyway, today was Stein's turn.

Stein, being a Nixon White House veteran, and thus well-acquainted with the black arts of official mendacity, proffered his advice to Bush to stick with Karl Rove, that this whole story was essentially a contrivance pushed into the spotlight and kept there by the likes of Chuck Schumer.

Of course, Stein had no explanation for why, if there's no there there, it's taken two years for all of these putatively innocuous discrepancies to be brought to light. He also has no explanation as to why other CIA agents, such as registered Republican Larry Johnson, seem to think that the outing of Plame's name was a genuine breach of trust, as well as national security. Johnson thought enough of this episode to deliver the Democratic Party's radio address yesterday; usually this function is reserved for a ranking party member to rebut some bit of nonsense gabbled by Bush in his Saturday morning radio address (which, truth be told, interferes with W's preferred watching hours for Dora the Explorer. Thank Unca Dick for TiVo!).

Stein certainly has a right to voice his opinion, as corrupt and unprincipled as it is, but it is somewhat irresponsible of CBS to just air this bullshit without any sort of counterpoint response. There were holes in Stein's argument one could drive a truck through, but without air time for said truck driver, they're just huge holes, aren't they?

(Full disclosure: in 2000 I was a contestant on Win Ben Stein's Money, so I have met and talked with Stein, and actually think very highly of him as a person. He came across as a genuinely decent and gracious person, and took time to talk at length with all the contestants. All that said, I still think of him as a nice guy, but his politics suck, as do his rhetorical methods for defending some of the most corrupt personages to disgrace the once-hallowed halls of American government. Stein is of a piece with Coulter and Limbaugh and the rest of them -- shameless, tendentious hackery, unequivocal in its partisan short-sightedness and hypocrisy. If it were Clinton or Gore, they'd all pile on like Rove at the fried chicken basin at Hometown Buffet.)

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