The Press Dog That Didn’t Bark

Scott McClellan has offered no bombshells—yet.

Scott McClellan

Though Scott McClellan served as White House press secretary for three years, his words were perhaps never so closely picked over as they were this week. He’s working on a memoir of his time in the White House, and his publisher offered a little peek about the moment when he unwittingly took part in covering up the role Bush administration officials played in outing undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Here’s what McClellan said:

I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. There was one problem. It was not true.I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself.

Many people responded to this by going bonkers, suggesting that McClellan was fingering Bush, Cheney, and Chief of Staff Andy Card in the cover-up that followed the disclosure of Plame’s covert status. He was compared to John Dean, who blew the whistle on Richard Nixon. The AP headline read, “Former Aide Blames Bush for Leak Deceit.”

Though many former Bush aides remain loyal, McClellan could in fact be a candidate for a tell-all. After news broke Plame’s identity had been revealed in the summer of 2003, it was McClellan who played a key role in exonerating Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. In October 2003, he stood at the press room podium and said they were not involved. When it became obvious that was untrue, McClellan spent months stonewalling for the administration, refusing to address questions about the case. His credibility deteriorated with each appearance. Reporters started asking whether McClellan had lied when he gave his original denial or had been lied to. Before leaving his post in 2006, he answered that question, explaining that Libby and Rove had not been straight with him.

When the book excerpt came out Tuesday, I was skeptical because McClellan said the five administration officials had been “involved” in putting out the bogus information. The word was too vague. It could have meant many different things. With respect to Rove and Libby, McClellan was already on the record saying that they’d misled him. But was he now saying the same thing about Bush, Cheney and Card? If so, why didn’t McClellan just say so? I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration knew it. That would be big news, indeed.

The reason McClellan chose the vague language is that he isn’t saying in his book that the top officials were involved in the cover-up—at least not all of them. “What Scott is saying is that it was clear that he was given information that was wrong,” says McClellan’s publisher, Peter Osnos. “Two of the people, Rove and Libby, knew it was wrong. But he has no reason to believe that the president didn’t think it was true. Andy Card did not think it was wrong. It’s kinda ambiguous about Dick Cheney.” (It’s always that way with the vice president.)

So, despite the uproar, McClellan’s excerpt pretty much tells us what we already knew about the roles of the key players during the relevant two weeks in October. Bush, Cheney, and Card may have been involved in pressing McClellan to push the story, but, as far as McClellan knows, those three were doing so because they too had been misled by Rove and Libby (with possible fuzziness here about McClellan’s view of Cheney).

Lost in the excitement is this larger point: Even if the president, the vice president, and Card didn’t know that McClellan was lying during those two October weeks, they certainly knew afterward that his stalwart defense had become inoperative, as reports surfaced that Libby and Rove had talked about the matter with reporters. And if they didn’t know for sure, they should have cared enough to find out when it became clear that Libby and Rove were not as innocent of Plame’s outing as they first claimed. Bush, Card, and Cheney never did much to figure out what the real story was. Nor did they step in to clear McClellan’s name—the decent kind of thing you do in an administration that prizes loyalty. People may say Bush lives in a bubble, but he wasn’t oblivious to the yawning contradiction between what McClellan had said on his behalf and what was turning out to be true.

For McClellan, perhaps there’s a delicious payback in the intense interest in his book (never mind if, so far, much of it is unearned). He had to spend many months emitting blurry answers that protected his colleagues at his expense; now he gets to generate a little buzz and maybe profit from a little vagueness himself.