Where's My Subpoena?
Valerie Plame, Scooter Libby, and me.
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."
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Matthew Cooper by Paul J. Richards/Agence France Presse; photograph of Karl Rove by Paul J. Richards/Agence France Presse.