Did Rove blow a spook's cover?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 16 2003 7:59 PM

Did Rove Blow a Spook's Cover?

The White House won't say.

A minor flap has been brewing since syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing "two senior administration officials," reported in July that Joseph C. Wilson IV was married to a Central Intelligence Agency specialist on "weapons of mass destruction" named Valerie Plame. Wilson is the former diplomat sent by the CIA last year to check out allegations that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. He caused the Bush administration no small embarrassment by stating, in a July 6 op-ed, that he'd reported "it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place." Novak hasn't particularly supported the Iraq war, and his column essentially took Wilson's side. But the fact that Novak blew Plame's cover (in the course of relating that Wilson was sent at Plame's suggestion) gave TheNation's David Corn the opportunity to accuse the Bush administration of compromising national security, in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982. Wilson wouldn't confirm that his wife works for the CIA, but he told Corn that if she did, then

Naming her this way would have compromised every operation, every relationship, every network with which she had been associated in her entire career. This is the stuff of Kim Philby and Aldrich Ames.

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The question of whether to investigate who in the Bush administration blew Plame's cover surfaced Aug. 21 at a forum about intelligence failures on Iraq held by Rep. Jay Inslee, a fervently anti-war Democrat. Wilson, who was present, had this to say:

It's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words.

This appeared to be an unsubtle hint that Wilson knew one of the leakers to be Rove. Taking the bait, someone asked White House press spokesman Scott McClellan about it today:

Q: On the Robert Novak-Joseph Wilson situation, Novak reported earlier this year quoting "anonymous government sources" telling him that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative. Now, this is apparently a federal offense, to burn the cover [of] a CIA operative. Wilson now believes that the person who did this was Karl Rove. He's quoted from a speech last month as saying, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs." Did Karl Rove tell that—

A: I haven't heard that. That's just totally ridiculous. But we've already addressed this issue. If I could find out who anonymous people were, I would. I just said, it's totally ridiculous.

Q: But did Karl Rove do it?

A: I said, it's totally ridiculous.

Now, on one level, Chatterbox feels mildly sympathetic toward McClellan. White House etiquette prevented him from saying, "How the hell should I know? If Rove blew the cover of a CIA agent, do you suppose he'd be stupid enough to tell me about it?" And McClellan deserves points for not taking a leaf from his predecessor Ari Fleischer's playbook, which says that you should always deny damaging stuff well before you know whether it's true.

But on another level, it's pretty unsettling that McClellan refuses to answer the question at all. Rove is, after all, the president's principal political adviser, a man so influential that a recent book about him was titled Bush's Brain. McClellan could have said something like, "I have a very hard time imagining that to be true, but if you like I'll ask him." But McClellan didn't say that. Maybe he finds all speculation about wacky national-security skullduggery repellant in light of his father's embarrassing new book alleging that Lyndon Johnson murdered John F. Kennedy. Or maybe—just maybe—McClellan wonders himself whether Rove got a little overzealous.

Wilson, for his part, denied today that he ever accused Rove. He told Chatterbox "Karl Rove" was simply a handy metonym for whatever two "senior administration officials" fingered Plame (correctly or falsely, Wilson still won't say). But Wilson's "I measure my words" comment at the Inslee forum suggests to Chatterbox that Wilson is now being coy about what he knows, or at least suspects, regarding Rove. Maybe it's time for somebody to ask Rove himself whether he risked 10 years in jail in order to suggest that Wilson got his Niger assignment based on nepotism. And, perhaps, deliberately to punish Wilson by destroying his wife's career at the CIA. Rove is ruthless enough to have done so. The only real question is whether Bush's Brain is stupid enough.

[Update, Sept. 28: The CIA having now  asked the Justice Department to investigate, McClellan  says  "it is simply not true" that Rove leaked the information.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.