Friday, July 15, 2005

Let's parse the Rove story... or not

So here's the news: Karl Rove told the grand jury that Novak gave him Plame, not the other way around.

And here's the Noise Machine spin: This is good news for Rove, and the Liberal Media is trying to hide it.

And here's the deal: The Republicans have gone completely off the deep end.

I want to make one thing clear, right up front: I'm not an expert on this story. Yeah, I've kept up with it better than most, perhaps, but my comments are big picture and experience, not inside knowledge. Got it? I'm not claiming specific information about what happened in the West Wing or out at Langley.

But this is the story, and every development I've seen only brings it into tighter focus:

1. Beginning within days of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration engaged in a concerted effort to build a phony case for the invasion of Iraq. When no links could be established between Iraq and the 9/11 plot, the White House decided instead to focus on weapons of mass destruction as its justification for war.

2. This made elements within the CIA unhappy, because you don't survive in Spookworld without a 6th sense for those moments when you're being set up as the patsy in somebody else's scheme.

3. According to Joe Wilson, a former ambassador to Niger who was married to a CIA expert on WMDs, he was dispatched to Niger in February 2002 at the behest of the CIA in response to a request from Vice President Dick Cheney. His mission: Assess claims that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. His finding: No, not true.

4. Why did the CIA send Wilson? Are we to take this at face value? Of course not. The CIA (or, more likely, "elements within the CIA") sent Wilson to Niger because, for whatever reason, he looked like a guy who wasn't already compromised. Either that or because they hoped his position/reputation would make him more credible to Cheney. Who knows? To understand this story, one must grasp that there was a "war in heaven" taking place within the intelligence community in 2002-03. On the one side, politically savvy spooks who understood that supporting the White House would be rewarded; on the other, those who understood that The Agency would be blamed when the administration's claims turned out to be false.

5. The White House ignored Wilson's report, and the "yellowcake intelligence" became one of its most compelling claims during the run-up to invasion. On Jan. 28, 2003, in his state of the Union address, Bush uttered these 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

6. The "yellowcake memos" that the White House would cite as evidence of this claim would later be proven to be forgeries. The source of the forgery has never been determined, but the CIA was blamed for the "intelligence failure" behind the pre-war WMD claims made by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, et al. And, in case you get all your news from Fox, this just in: Still no WMDs found in Iraq...

6. On July 6, 2003, four months after the invasion, Wilson told his story on the op-ed page of the New York Times ("What I Didn't Find in Africa").

7. The Bush White House was furious, and did what it has always done to anyone who dares to oppose it: It set out to crush Wilson. Two days after the Wilson op-ed appeared, Rove discussed Wilson's trip and his wife with Bob Novak. Five days after the op-ed, he had a conversation with Time's Matthew Cooper.

8. On July 14, 2003, Novak published a column about the yellowcake dustup. It included this fateful paragraph: "Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. 'I will not answer any question about my wife,' Wilson told me."

9. Because it's illegal for a public official to reveal the identity of a covert intelligence agent, Novak's column caused something curious to happen: The president's political opponents had reason to call for a Justice Department investigation, and the White House didn't have the political cover to say no. Said Bush: "And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."

10. Anyway, let's be clear about this, because it's the essential point in the entire story: Bush's critics latched on to the Plame-name leak because it was a story with a handle on it. The REAL story was that by September of 2003, it was painfully obvious to anyone who was willing to see it that the neo-cons had manipulated the country into war. The problem with making that case to the country was that the facts involved were complex, and the White House would simply deny them, over and over and over. Pinning down these guys is like chasing a greased pig. That White House sources MIGHT have committed a crime by leaking Plame's identity in an attack on one of their critics was nothing more than a proxy issue for the Bush team's crass assault on the truth before, during and after the invasion.

11. Rove was the obvious candidate right from the start, for one simple reason: He's been a dirty SOB his entire career. As Wilson told CBS News:
"I have a very reputable source who told me that all of this had been condoned by Karl Rove himself - or at a minimum - not stopped by him for a full week after the story was circulating." Scott McClellan denied it, but so what? Nobody in the press believed him, because you just don't believe someone who evades the truth for a living. But whatever. I don't think anybody seriously believed Rove didn't do it, but at the same time, I don't think anybody believed Rove would ever get pinned down for it.

12. So why is Novak walking the streets while Judith Miller sits in jail and Cooper gives it up for the prosecutor? Because he turned the instant somebody with subpoena power showed up and said "spill it, Novak." Only what he told them wasn't enough to make a case, so Fitzgerald went looking for other reporters.

13. Cooper is supposed to be writing about this for TIME, only he won't tell other reporters because he "doesn't want to scoop" himself. Novak says he'll write about it when it's all over. But the big buzz in the last few weeks -- that Cooper identified Rove as his source -- has brought things back to where they stood in the fall of 2003: Kaptain Karl, right in the middle of it all, with nothing more to stand on than plausible deniability.

14. Plausible deniability will keep you from being convicted, and in some cases, it will keep you from being indicted.

15. But remember: This story was never really about a crime (just like the Monica story was never really about perjury... or a blow-job). It's about honesty, integrity, credibility. Regular people might be confused by the tricky ins and outs of the intelligence game, but they recognize a bully. Once you see the Bush administration without its spin on, that's really all they are: bullies. And Americans just don't like bullies.

16. So anyway, now Rove and the GOP have got their talking points out. They've got their lawyerly evasions, including their well-prepared lawyerly comments to the grand jury, to investigators, etc. Rove says, yeah, he was a source, but not the original source. And he didn't give the name. Etc. That's the denial.

17. The next step is the switch: Rove and the White House weren't trying to hit Wilson where it hurts, they were simply trying to wave reporters off erroneous information.

18. Then they delivered the big payoff: The whole thing was a liberal lie; Plame sent Wilson to Niger just to hurt the president; and say, look at all these other pieces of "contradictory" evidence. Let's talk about motivations and speculation. Let's frame Wilson and Plame as sleazy cowards, clowns, publicity hounds. Put it all together and you've got FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), the calling card of the Bush White House.

19. Have they proven their innocence? Of course not. Have they demonstrated their honesty, integrity and straight-arrow character? Let's be serious. These guys haven't vindicated themselves: they've turned the entire story into a frothy, fecal stew -- something so unpleasant and murky that regular people either get really mad about it or back away and say "I don't want to get involved... they're all crooked up there in Washington, anyway." The boys in the West Wing don't have to come out of this thing smelling sweet, they just have to come out with their hands still on the reins. And they will.

20. Are the conservatives telling the truth when they say that this story is really about "getting" Bush and Rove? Yes! But they're not telling the larger truth: Whether or not Rove or the people he authorized to make the leaks on his behalf are ever punished, Plame is small potatoes. The truly heinous crimes were committed before the war, back in the days when the government of the United States of America was conspiring to silence all dissent and construct an intelligence picture it knew to be misleading... both for Congress and for the American people. That's an enormous subject to get your arms around, and with the GOP in command of all three branches of government, it's unlikely that those crimes will ever be prosecuted.

On one level, what we're witnessing is the government coming apart. Wilson and Plame weren't liberals, and they're only liberal now in the sense that liberal equals "opposed to the neo-cons." But if you scan talk radio today, you'll hear them being ripped to shreds. What does this tell you?

I have a retired friend who is a refugee from Spookworld. Both of us once considered ourselves "conservative" (a quaint word with little meaning today) but now see ourselves as liberal in the "opposed to the neo-cons" sense of the word. In 2004, I asked him over lunch if there were patriots in the intelligence community who would stand up and fight back against the manipulation of the country. "They already are," he told me.

Some are fighting back out of a sense of devotion to a higher ideal of America. Others are doing so just because they are mad at how they've been blamed for "bad intelligence" that wasn't so bad before they sent it up to the White House. But it gives me a warped sense of hope. Rove may be a super-spook, but at least there are people with spookish powers who oppose him. I don't know if I trust them any more than I do the Bushies, but you know how it is in a bar fight. You worry about that later.

We are over-run with FUD, and it's hard to sort through it all. It's hard for journalists, and its hard for "civilians." But I've said this before (and been accused of trying to relive the 2004 election because of it, a non-sequitor of epic proportion): The way for journalists and citizens to cut through the FUD is to use the ideal of America as their filter.

Don't ask "was it illegal?" That leads to lawyers. Ask, is this the country I want? Is this the kind of behavior that I believe in? Would I accept this level of honesty from my child?

When you think that way, it all becomes pretty clear. It's not time for Rove to go. It's time for all of them to go.