So this is how serious the controversy over Karl Rove has gotten for the White House: On Monday, Press Secretary Scott McClellan actually had to dodge a question from Fox News. It came from correspondent Carl Cameron: “Does the president continue to have confidence in Mr. Rove?” Relatively speaking, it was one of the softer inquiries McClellan fielded in an ugly briefing that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described as “perhaps the worst” of McClellan’s two-year tenure. McClellan answered Cameron the same way he answered most of the reporters asking about Rove that day: by refusing to comment.
But the questions won’t go away, because we now know that Rove was a key player in the infamous outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. For those unfamiliar with the saga, Plame is married to Joseph Wilson, a former American ambassador whom the CIA had asked to investigate allegations that Iraq sought yellowcake uranium from Niger. Wilson determined the claims were unsubstantiated. After President Bush cited them as justification for the Iraq war, Wilson accused the administration of misleading the public. And that’s where Rove comes in. In an apparent effort to discredit Wilson and perhaps intimidate other critics of the war, administration officials began talking to reporters “on background,” suggesting that Wilson was not credible because his wife worked at the CIA. (The rather dubious implication seems to have been that Wilson had gotten the original research assignment only out of nepotism.)
The administration itself would eventually admit that it had overstated the intelligence about Niger. But, around the same time, articles about Wilson began to mention Plame and her affiliation, citing anonymous administration officials as sources. That prompted a Justice Department investigation, including subpoenas to journalists, since it is a federal crime to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert operative. Rove was a lead suspect all along. Now the latest edition of Newsweek has finally confirmed it for the public by reporting that Rove had mentioned Wilson’s wife—and her work at the CIA—to Matt Cooper of Time magazine.
Legal trouble still seems unlikely for Rove, given the high threshold for proving a transgression, but political trouble is another matter. It’s now clear that Rove’s past denials of involvement—namely, his statement to CNN last year that “I didn’t leak her name”—rest only on the quaintly Clintonian distinction that he never uttered the words “Valerie Plame,” referring to her instead as Wilson’s wife. Both McClellan and Bush himself have made broad statements about the moral impropriety of leaking such information—and the consequences that would befall any officials caught doing so. “If anyone in this administration was involved in it,” McClellan said in 2003, “they would no longer be in this administration.”
Or maybe they would. When conservatives make mistakes, they don’t admit them. They blame the liberal media conspiracy. And the right has been trying to defuse the Plame controversy that way for a while now. Even before this latest revelation, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, had called the episode an “absurd media feeding frenzy about a non-crime that journalists relentlessly hyped to hurt the Bush administration.” The meme continued this week when, on msnbc’s “Hardball,” New York Post Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin attacked the media for focusing on Rove instead of Wilson’s (alleged) misstatements. On Fox News, Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes made the same argument, suggesting that Rove was under scrutiny only because “three-fourths of the press and 100 percent of the Democrats are out to get him.”
That last charge, which we hear every time Republicans get into ethical trouble, is particularly ironic given the sagas of two reporters ensnared in this controversy: Cooper and Judith Miller. Cooper looks like a poster boy for liberal media bias. He’s a graduate of the Ivy League (Columbia University). He worked at two left-of-center opinion magazines (The New Republic and The Washington Monthly). He’s even married to a former Clinton White House operative (Mandy Grunwald). Yet, when faced with the option of revealing his source—thereby embarrassing the White House—or going to jail, Cooper held fast and prepared for imprisonment. He did agree to testify about his conversation with Rove at the very last minute. But, according to news accounts, it was only after Time, over Cooper’s own objections, relinquished e-mails that effectively outed Rove anyway and after Rove’s lawyer reminded reporters that Rove had issued a blanket waiver to all reporters involved in the inquiry. Those are hardly the actions of somebody on a crusade to get the White House.
Miller’s journalism pedigree, which includes work for The Progressive and National Public Radio, tilts even more to the left than Cooper’s. And, of course, she now writes for the institution conservative media critics revile most of all: The New York Times. Yet she is infamous for her credulous reporting hyping the Saddam threat. (Not long before the Bush administration got into trouble for paying reporters to pass along its propaganda breathlessly, Miller was basically doing it for free.) That doesn’t fit the media conspiracy theories. Nor does the behavior of her supposedly anti-Bush editors at the Times, who (unlike Cooper’s superiors) refused to relinquish Miller’s notes, defending her pledge of confidentiality all the way to the jail cell she now occupies.
And look who else was standing behind Cooper and Miller as imprisonment loomed: liberal opinion writers at places like The Washington Post. While some of these writers did so out of personal loyalty to Cooper or Miller, they were also putting professionalism over partisanship. They hardly suggested letting Rove off the hook, but they promoted their journalistic principles even though it meant protecting him.
So where’s the liberal media conspiracy? Oh, right, back in the press briefing room, where reporters were pummeling poor Scott McClellan. But when even Fox’s correspondent gets on the bandwagon, maybe it’s a sign of what’s really driving this story: not a partisan or temperamental crusade to bring down the president, but a recognition that administration officials committed sleazy, possibly illegal, acts for which they should finally be held accountable.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.