This is the second part of a two-part article. Click here for Part 1, explaining why John Dickerson’s name has popped up in connection with the CIA leak case.
While the president finished his meeting with Museveni, I hung out with a “senior administration official” by an old yellow school bus. This was the first of my two conversations about Wilson. In his letter to Libby, Fitzgerald has the chronology mixed up. When I had these conversations, I hadn’t yet talked to my colleague Matt Cooper about Wilson, and Cooper hadn’t yet talked to Rove.
The senior administration official spoke to me on background about Wilson and the president’s amazing decision to blame the CIA. Other reporters wandered in and out of the conversation, but there were stretches where it was just the two of us (my tedious newsmagazine questions always had a tendency to drive other deadline-oriented reporters away). The official walked me through all the many problems with Wilson’s report: His work was sloppy, contradictory, and hadn’t been sanctioned by Tenet or any senior person. Some low-level person at the CIA was responsible for the mission. I was told I should go ask the CIA who sent Wilson.
An hour later, as Bush spoke at an AIDS treatment center, I chatted with a different senior administration official, also on background. We talked about many different aspects of the story—the fight with the CIA, the political implications for the president, and the administration’s shoddy damage control. This official also pointed out a few times that Wilson had been sent by a low-level CIA employee and encouraged me to follow that angle. I thought I got the point: He’d been sent by someone around the rank of deputy assistant undersecretary or janitor.
At the end of the two conversations I wrote down in my notebook: “look who sent.” It was about 10:30 a.m. in Washington as the event ended. I called the Washington bureau but couldn’t reach anyone (they were all huddled in the morning meeting). What struck me was how hard both officials were working to knock down Wilson. Discrediting your opposition is a standard tactic in Washington, but the Bush team usually played the game differently. At that stage in the first term, Bush aides usually blew off their critics. Or, they continued to assert their set of facts in the hope of overcoming criticism by force of repetition.
We boarded Air Force One about 11 a.m. Washington time and flew to Nigeria. When I got into the press filing center there, I picked my way though dubious local food and checked my e-mail. White House officials had warned us the country was a hot zone of infestation. To avoid parasites we were not only told not to drink the water but not to shower, wash, or brush our teeth with it. We were also advised to bring our own sheets to sleep on. So, eating the locally provided dinner was probably a bad idea. I pushed aside the clumps of stew.
It had been a long week. I was co-writing a long story on the trip for the European edition, filing each day to the Web site and also filing for the domestic cover story on the fallout over the 16 words. Oh, and I also had to file a story on violence in Liberia. My inbox was a mess. In the middle of it was an e-mail from Matt Cooper telling me to call him from a land line when I had some privacy. At some time after 1 p.m. his time, I called him. He told me that he had talked to Karl Rove that morning and that Rove had given him the same Wilson takedown I’d been getting in Uganda. But Matt had the one key fact I didn’t: Rove had said that Wilson’s wife sent him.
So, that explained the wink-wink nudge-nudge I was getting about who sent Wilson. Matt and I agreed to point out in our files to the cover story that White House officials were going so directly after Wilson. We also agreed that I wouldn’t go back to my sources about the wife business. The universe of people who knew this information was undoubtedly small. Mentioning it to other officials would potentially out Rove as Time’s source to his colleagues. Plus, it was Matt’s scoop and his arrangement with Rove. He had a better sense of how to get the information confirmed without violating their agreement.
That Friday night in Washington, CIA Director George Tenet fell on his sword, taking responsibility for not carefully vetting the State of the Union speech. That big news eclipsed the storyline about an effort by White House officials to discredit Wilson.
I missed the final sausage-making process of putting together the weekly magazine. As Time’s cover story was being written in Washington, I was flying back from Africa. I saw the final piece only moments before it was closed. By then, Matt had talked to Scooter Libby, who confirmed Rove’s tip. The attack on Wilson had not been included. The writers focused on his original trip and the damage his op-ed had done to administration credibility. Time’s cover showed the president giving the State of the Union address under the headline “Untruth and Consequences.”
Since the attack on Wilson was not included in the printed magazine that came out Monday, Cooper thought we should put it online. All administrations discredit their critics through whispers to reporters, but we hadn’t seen high-level Bush people do anything like this in the past. It suggested desperation and unsteadiness in a national security team that had often been heralded for its smooth competency.
At this point the information about Valerie Plame was not the radioactive material it is today. No one knew she might have been a protected agent—and for whatever reason, the possibility didn’t occur to us or anyone else at the time. But it was still newsworthy that the White House was using her to make its case. That Scooter Libby and Karl Rove mentioned Plame to Matt was an example of how they were attempting to undermine Wilson. They were trying to make his trip look like a special family side deal not officially sanctioned by the agency. No one at a high level in the government was worried enough about the veracity of the uranium claim to send a “real” special envoy. And no one at a high level ever saw Wilson’s report when he returned. Later we would learn that Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley had been warned by the CIA that the uranium claims were shaky and that Wilson’s wife was one of many people involved in the decision to send her husband.
Our editors delayed publication of the Web piece, uncertain there was enough evidence the White House was trying to undermine Wilson’s credibility. That was frustrating, since by that time the White House spokesman, Fleischer, was undermining him on the record. Bob Novak’s story revealing Plame’s name had come out, but those of us working on the story in Washington, which now included Massimo Calabresi, thought we still had a few facts Novak didn’t. Our piece finally ran on the Web on July 17, 2003, six days after Cooper had learned about Wilson’s wife.
Where did Fitzgerald learn about my activities? Matt told me he briefly mentioned me in front of the grand jury and Viveca Novak said my name came up in passing when she talked to Fitzgerald. He also subpoenaed White House e-mail records that included, White House officials tell me, e-mails I sent to them about the Wilson business in the days and months after that July trip to Africa. Those officials also told Fitzgerald and his grand jury about conversations we had. I came back from the trip harboring a suspicion that only fully made sense when I learned Plame’s CIA cover had been blown. It seemed obvious that the people pushing me to look into who sent Wilson knew exactly the answer I’d find. Yet they were really careful not to let the information slip, which suggested that they knew at the time Plame’s identity was radioactive.
That’s my bit of the story. I don’t expect my grandchildren will be asking me to repeat it again in 30 years on the porch swing. Oh, Grampa, tell us again about the two senior administration officials in Africa. If they want something more exciting, they’ll have to ask Uncle Matt.