Rove Death Watch, Part 2

Wherein your correspondent corrects some misconceptions.

Why aren’t the major newspapers running editorials calling for Karl Rove’s resignation? The Washington Post is silent. So is the Los Angeles Times. Maybe they’re waiting for more information. But what more do they have to know? The White House deputy chief of staff revealed the identity of an undercover CIA employee to Time magazine. He did this solely for the purpose of attacking the credibility of an administration critic. He did not check first to find out whether said CIA employee was undercover. Or perhaps he knew and didn’t care. Either way, such reckless behavior is a firing offense. Next case.

The New York Times weighs in today with uncharacteristic timidity. (I knew we were in for noncommittal chin-pulling when I saw the headline, “A Few Thoughts on Karl Rove.” In editorial-ese, “A Few Thoughts on” is code for “We Can’t Decide About.”) The editorial states, erroneously, that Rove told Time’s Matt Cooper that Wilson was sent to Niger “at the suggestion of his wife.” Wilson was sent to Niger at the suggestion of his wife, but that’s not what Rove told Cooper, according to Cooper’s e-mail to his bureau chief as quoted by Newsweek, which is all we have to go on. According to Cooper’s e-mail, Rove told him Wilson’s wife “authorized the trip,” which is not true. Rove’s absurd insinuation seems to have been that only a girly-man would depend on his wife for work, and that a girly-man wouldn’t know squat about weapons of mass destruction. Unless Cooper was garbling what Rove told him, we must conclude that Rove was passing along false information, perhaps with the recommendation that Cooper check it out, or perhaps not.

But I digress.

The Times editorial concludes by calling for Rove to … answer his critics at a press conference! Why not call for Rove’s resignation? My guess is that the Times feels the issue of Rove’s culpability in this matter is tangled up with the issue of how we came to discover it, i.e., through Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s bullying of the press. To call on Rove to resign, the Times may believe, would be to legitimize a rogue prosecution that’s landed Times reporter Judy Miller in jail. If that is the Times’s thinking, it’s totally wrongheaded. Whether the courts should force reporters to reveal confidential sources is a separate issue from whether sources, after they’ve been unmasked, should be held accountable by their bosses for improper communications. The First Amendment does not and should not guarantee Karl Rove lifetime employment.

But what if Rove is … a whistle-blower? Yeah, that’s it, he’s a whistle-blower! This is the trial balloon floated in a Wall Street Journal editorial that the Republican National Committee is circulating madly. The argument is that Rove did a public service by alerting Time that Wilson

had been recommended for the CIA consulting gig by his wife, not by Vice President Dick Cheney as Mr. Wilson was asserting on the airwaves. In short, Mr. Rove provided important background so Americans could understand that Mr. Wilson wasn’t a whistleblower but was a partisan trying to discredit the Iraq War in an election campaign. Thank you, Mr. Rove.

The biggest problem with this argument is that Wilson never said that Dick Cheney personally chose him to fly to Niger to check out rumors that Iraq was buying yellowcake uranium. To hear the GOP tell it, you’d think Wilson’s story had Cheney punching his speed dial and asking, “How’s that golf game going, you old so-and-so? What are you doing next Saturday? How’d you like to do me a little favor? Love to Val and the kids.”What Wilson claimed in his July 2003 New York Times op-ed piece—the document whose purported falsity Rove was trying to expose—is as follows:

I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake — a form of lightly processed ore — by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990’s. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president’s office.

All true. I don’t know what verbal shorthand Wilson used when discussing this matter “on the airwaves,” but to the extent he emphasized this trip was instigated by Cheney, his point would have been not to indicate Cheney hand-picked him for the trip but rather to emphasize that the trip itself never would have happened had Cheney not ordered the CIA to assign it. Because the CIA had already concluded, correctly, it turns out, that the Iraqis had purchased no yellowcake.

But let’s suppose that Wilson did indeed claim, falsely, that Cheney personally selected him to go to Niger (“Go get ‘em, tiger!”). To blow the whistle on this lie, Rove still would have no logical need to expose Wilson’s wife as a CIA employee. He could merely tell Time’s Cooper, “Cheney did not select Wilson for the trip. Cheney has never met or spoken to Wilson in his life. Some faceless bureaucrat at the CIA picked Wilson.” For Rove to add (falsely) that Wilson’s wife authorized Wilson, or even to add (correctly) that Wilson’s wife recommended Wilson to her superiors, would serve merely to castrate Wilson (at least in Rove’s overheatedly macho imagination).

I hold no brief for Joe Wilson. This column has criticized him and his wife for cozying up to the glitterati, even at the expense of allowing Valerie Plame to be photographed without any disguise at the TriBeCa film festival. (Wilson had previously claimed that even after she was outed, Plame couldn’t be photographed without a disguise because she needed to be protected from “some wacko in the street.” The couple’s subsequent decision to position Plame’s face before the paparazzi suggests that their previous stance was pure theater.) Furthermore, although Wilson found no evidence that Iraq had purchased yellowcake from Niger, I believe that Wilson ought to have been more forthright about finding evidence that Iraq had indeed made some overtures toward purchasing yellowcake, though not in a way that the Senate intelligence committee deemed terribly significant. (“The language in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that ‘Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake’ overstated what the Intelligence Community knew…”) Bush’s famous 16 words about this in his State of the Union address remain hooey, but Wilson was sloppy, and perhaps a little dishonest, in criticizing them.

But this is not what Rove told Cooper. What Rove told Cooper was that Joe Wilson was married to a woman who worked for the CIA. He said this apparently without checking—as any minimally responsible person would do—whether this was information that needed to be kept secret. And that’s the generous interpretation; it’s possible (though doubtful, I think) that he passed along this information knowing that he was blowing Plame’s cover and pretty much destroying her CIA career. (There has been some dispute about whether Plame was technically undercover when she was exposed. I apply a simple test: Did her friends and neighbors know she worked for the CIA? They did not. Ergo, she was undercover.)

Rove behaved in a way that was unacceptably heedless of national security concerns. He revealed a secret not to expose the truth, but to smear a political enemy. And, if Cooper’s e-mail is precisely accurate, the smear wasn’t even true. Some whistle-blower.

Coda: The White House and Bush are still stonewalling. But Rove may have taken one small step forward on the plank today. As I’ve noted before, Rove’s departure will likely be signaled when the president starts saying things like, “I’m behind Karl 100 percent.” (A few readers have asked me to provide a rational explanation for this paradox. I can’t. It’s just a mysterious Washington ritual, like the consumption of Senate bean soup.) Today’s White House briefing included the following exchange:

Q: Scott, from Africa, Mrs. Bush says, Karl Rove is a very good friend of mine; I’ve known him for years. And she’s not going to speculate on any other part of the case. Well, does the President feel the same way about Karl Rove, the relationship with Karl Rove, a very good friend for many years? A: Yes, he does.

This is a departure from McClellan’s previous stance, which was to state that Rove had the president’s full confidence only insofar as anyone else who worked at the White House had the president’s full confidence. Today McClellan personalized the president’s relationship with Rove; he’s a “good friend.” The optimist in me interprets that as a subtle signal that the bloom is off the Turd Blossom.