Bush's newest, and least persuasive, Libby excuse.

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July 12 2007 7:12 PM

Bush's Latest, Lame Libby Excuse

The president and Karl Rove find a scapegoat.

George W. Bush. Click image to expand.

After four years of saying very little about the CIA leak investigation, George Bush and Karl Rove are finally speaking up, and they're blaming former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

At his press conference Thursday, President Bush was asked if he was disappointed in the senior advisers involved in the outing of CIA employee Valerie Plame and whether he'd communicated that disappointment to them in any way. "I haven't spent a lot of time talking about the testimony that people throughout my administration were forced to give as a result of the special prosecutor," Bush began. "I didn't ask them during that time, and I haven't asked them since."

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For the last two weeks the president and his aides have asserted that Bush was deep in contemplation over the details of the Libby case as he weighed whether to commute the sentence. But on the larger, four-year episode with national security implications, the inquisitive chief executive asserts he didn't ask a single question of those involved. This is not going to help his reputation for operating in a bubble. It's smart for Bush to play dumb on the details of the case because, of course, the president doesn't want to have to account for the role of his chief political adviser Karl Rove, who discussed Plame's identity with two reporters.

But Bush didn't stop his answer with that dodge. He also offered one coy observation: "I am aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person, and, you know, I've often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, 'I did it.' Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter?"

The president was talking about either Armitage, or (much less likely) his former press secretary Ari Fleischer. But contrary to Bush's claim, both Armitage and Fleischer did come forth. In October 2003, once Armitage realized he was the source of the leak to columnist Robert Novak, he told Secretary of State Colin Powell and the FBI before  special prosecutor Fitzgerald called his first grand jury witness. Fleischer told Fitzgerald about mentioning Plame's name to reporters in his first grand jury appearance.

By highlighting Armitage and Fleischer, Bush aligns himself with those who define the case narrowly around the leaking of Plame's actual name. It shifts the focus from Rove, who discussed Plame with two reporters and whose recollections were complex enough that he made five grand jury visits. It also shifts the story away from Libby, who was not convicted of passing along Plame's name, but of lying and obstructing justice in the investigation into who did. Libby's advocates, such as presidential candidate Fred Thompson, argue that since it couldn't be proven that Libby committed the crime of naming Plame—which put special prosecutor Fitzgerald in business—Libby should never have been prosecuted for perjury and obstructing justice.

Five days before Bush highlighted Armitage, Karl Rove did, too. At an Aspen Institute forum last Saturday, Walter Isaacson asked him about his role in the case and unlike previous instances in which he declined to speak, Rove answered: "The record pretty well shows that it is one [who] used her name … Armitage."

During the audience questioning period afterward, none other than Colin Powell himself rose to defend his longtime friend, relating how Armitage had come forward, talked to the FBI investigators and how they told the news to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. (Though in Powell's telling Armitage never used Plame's actual name.) Then, Powell seemed to turn it back on Rove. The special prosecutor's investigation continued, Powell asserted, despite Armitage's confession, because "there were others involved—a lot of others—and [prosecutors] couldn't get all of the answers they needed to get resolution. If everybody who had talked with reporters during that period had done what Armitage had done, I think this would have ended early on and not dragged out."

Patrick Fitzgerald had to call Rove so many times to the grand jury in part because he thought Rove wasn't telling him the whole story. It was only in October 2004, eight months after his first grand jury visit, that Rove told Fitzgerald he remembered that in addition to talking to Robert Novak he'd also talked to Time reporter Matt Cooper about Joe Wilson's wife.

And Rove is still trying to minimize and revise his Plamegate history. In the Aspen interview Rove forgot about Cooper again. He told Isaacson, "my contribution to this was to say to a reporter—and this tells you something about talking to reporters—the words: 'I heard that too.' " He was referring to his conversation with Bob Novak, only one part of his contribution to the drama. Rove's lawyer has said that Rove told Cooper that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, but when Isaacson mentioned Cooper in a follow-up, Rove talked about everything but that. "I don't remember the conversation with Matt Cooper," he said. "But even his own notes of it are that it's an off-the-record conversation on Friday morning when I know that Novak's column has been written and is going to be published, and that the CIA is coming out with a statement that says Joe Wilson was not sent at the direction of the CIA or the CIA director, or the Vice President, and is not dispositive, not conclusive, in fact added to the case, didn't detract from the case and was suspect because of the methods he used to collect the data, and I'm trying to tell Matt Cooper—by his own notes—don't get ahead of yourself on this, don't be writing about this thing for Time magazine."

The Plame scandal broke four years ago this month, and now it is finally ending. In his press conference, President Bush encouraged the country to move on from Libby—but before they do, the president and Karl Rove wanted to make sure they got the last word.

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