All the Prosecutor's Hints

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 31, 2005 3:30 PM

In a none-too-subtle attempt to change the subject first thing this morning, President Bush summoned the press to the White House and named appeals court Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coverage of a divisive nomination fight -- with Bush's right flank solidly behind him this time -- is much more to the White House's liking than all that nattering about the president's seemingly doomed second term in general, and the indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby in particular.

But Friday's announcement of Libby's indictment on five felony counts for intentionally obstructing the investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity is not the end of that story.

And the press, while blithely chasing another scent this morning, will be back in the hunt soon enough. If nothing else, Libby's public arraignment should bring out the media hordes. (Mark your calendars: it will be Thursday morning at 10:30 before Judge Reggie B. Walton in Courtroom 5 of the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse.)

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald may yet have some more indictments in store for us. But even if he doesn't, the information he released on Friday -- which initially struck many media observers as maddeningly short on details -- is in fact a still largely unmined treasure trove of hints about potentially serious ethical missteps by all sorts of senior Bush officials.

Just because a lot of the things Fitzgerald discovered evidently fell short of his very conservative prosecutorial standards -- they weren't out-and-out, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt crimes -- doesn't mean they were up to the standards the public reasonably expects from its White House.

"I know that people want to know whatever it is that we know, and they're probably sitting at home with TVs thinking, 'I want to jump through the TV, grab him by his collar and tell him to tell us everything they've figured out over the last two years,' " Fitzgerald said at his long-awaited Friday news conference.

Include me in.

But consider the constraints Fitzgerald was working under, and take a closer look at the news conference transcript and the indictment .

There is plenty of reason to believe that Fitzgerald has discovered evidence that Libby leaked Plame's name; that Karl Rove did the same; that Vice President Cheney's role was central to the drama; and that there was a lot more loose talk at the White House than anyone had imagined. Fitzgerald just isn't 100 percent sure that he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any other crimes took place. And grand jury secrecy rules forbid him from disclosing anything that isn't directly related to the filed charges.

Nevertheless, he sure doled out a lot of hints. One of the most intriguing, of course, involves "Official A" -- who several sources have identified as none other than Rove himself.

According to the indictment: "On or about July 10 or July 11, 2003, LIBBY spoke to a senior official in the White House ('Official A') who advised LIBBY of a conversation Official A had earlier that week with columnist Robert Novak in which Wilson's wife was discussed as a CIA employee involved in Wilson's trip. LIBBY was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson's wife."

If "Official A" is indeed Rove, then how does the White House explain his public insistence, directly and through the White House spokesman, that he was not involved in the leak to Novak? And how does the White House justify his continuing to work there?

Vindicating the Interest

Fitzgerald was tasked with finding out how Plame's identity as a CIA officer was revealed. "It's important that a CIA officer's identity be protected, that it be protected not just for the officer, but for the nation's security," he said Friday.

And although it's received fairly little attention, Fitzgerald stressed several times Friday that although he didn't charge Libby with a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, he felt the interests in the case had been vindicated.

"QUESTION: Mr. Fitzgerald, the Republicans previewed some talking points in anticipation of your indictment and they said that if you didn't indict on the underlying crimes and you indicted on things exactly like you did indict -- false statements, perjury, obstruction -- these were, quote/unquote, 'technicalities,' and that it really was over reaching and excessive. . . .

"FITZGERALD: I'll be blunt. That talking point won't fly. If you're doing a national security investigation, if you're trying to find out who compromised the identity of a CIA officer and you go before a grand jury and if the charges are proven -- because remember there's a presumption of innocence -- but if it is proven that the chief of staff to the vice president went before a federal grand jury and lied under oath repeatedly and fabricated a story about how he learned this information, how he passed it on, and we prove obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements to the FBI, that is a very, very serious matter. . . .

"Our allegation is in trying to drill down and find out exactly what we got here, if we received false information, that process is frustrated. . . .

"If Mr. Libby is proven to have done what we've alleged, convicting him of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements -- very serious felonies -- will vindicate the interest of the public in making sure he's held accountable."

Unanswered Questions

The theme of unanswered questions runs strong through much of the coverage.

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The 22-page indictment against White House adviser I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby raises a host of questions that are likely to hang over the Bush administration for months, including whether Vice President Dick Cheney had a direct role in revealing the identity of a CIA employee."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "Fitzgerald presented the information he felt he needed to reach a legal judgment in the case. But he withheld much of the information the country needs to reach a political judgment about the administration's actions.

"Indeed, in his indictment, Fitzgerald repeatedly raises critical questions that he flatly refuses to answer. His cautious approach may be the appropriate strategy for a criminal prosecutor, but it leaves open important issues that are likely to be resolved only through congressional hearings, with the central figures testifying under oath."

Among the questions Brownstein raises:

Who "told syndicated columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA"?

"Did Official A tell anyone else in the White House that he had leaked the information? Did Libby? Did anyone else know that Novak planned to publish a story disclosing Plame's name? Did anyone object?"

Brownstein also has a question about one of the hints in the indictment, in which Fitzgerald refers to a conversation on Air Force Two shortly before Libby talked to two reporters about Plame. "Why would Fitzgerald disclose such suggestive information without fully explaining it?"

Regarding that Air Force Two strategy session: Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Did Cheney help map out strategy with Libby during the flight? Did officials talk about Valerie Plame, the wife of the Bush critic, and that she worked for the CIA -- a detail that was soon leaked to the media? . . .

"Did Cheney attend the meeting, or did he sit elsewhere on the plane?"

Julia Angwin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "What was the exact role of Robert Novak, the journalist whose column unmasked CIA operative Valerie Plame?"

Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "At the heart of Friday's indictment of a top White House aide remain two unsolved mysteries.

"Who forged the documents that claimed Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons in the African country of Niger?

"How did a version of the tale get into President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, even though U.S. intelligence agencies never confirmed it and some intelligence analysts doubted it?"

Joe Conason writes in Salon: "In the grim light cast by the indictment of Libby, the president himself should now be required to answer an updated version of the classic Watergate question: What did he know about the national security offense and the apparent coverup perpetrated by his vice president and his chief political advisor? When did he know it? And why, with the facts laid before him, has he still done nothing about this outrage?"

Any Regrets?

One very good question for Bush and Cheney is: Do they have any regrets about what happened?

The answer thus far: Yes. Apparently they regret that Libby had to resign.

Here's Bush's statement . Here's Cheney's .

Dana Milbank and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Democrats demanded yesterday that President Bush fire Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and that the White House fully account for Vice President Cheney's role in the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, as Republicans acted to limit the political damage from Friday's indictment of Cheney's chief of staff."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, called for further disclosure by the administration, focusing on Mr. Cheney and his role. The indictment against Mr. Libby alleges that Mr. Cheney was among those who provided information to Mr. Libby about Valerie Wilson's position as a C.I.A. officer.

" 'What did the vice president know?' Mr. Dodd asked on 'Fox News Sunday.' 'What were his intentions? Now, there's no suggestion that the vice president is guilty of any crime here whatsoever, but if our standard is just criminality, then we're never going to get to the bottom of this.'

"In contrast, Republican allies of the administration sought to minimize the results of the investigation, noting that the accusations of misconduct were confined to Mr. Libby and that even he was not charged for revealing Ms. Wilson's identify but instead was accused of lying to federal agents and the grand jury investigating the case.

" 'It appears to be from the indictment a singular act by Mr. Libby,' Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an appearance on 'Face the Nation' on CBS."

Ball in Libby's Court

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "No one would ruminate on the record about Libby's motives, but there is speculation that perhaps Libby is falling on his sword to protect Cheney, not only his boss, but also a personal friend. The two ride into work together in Cheney's motorcade most mornings. Although Libby testified otherwise under oath, his own notes indicate that it was Cheney who first told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. What is not known is whether Cheney was aware of -- or sanctioned -- Libby's effort to discredit Wilson and his wife."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "In conversations over the weekend, administration officials and others close to the White House said President Bush's team was relieved that the prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, found no conspiracy. But that relief began to be tinged with a new sense of apprehension. Partly, they say, that is because Mr. Fitzgerald made it clear that his investigation into who blew the cover of the C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson, remained open.

"But it is also partly because there is speculation about whether Mr. Libby, facing the possibility of significant prison time if convicted, may decide that even his loyalty to the Bush-Cheney team has its limits.

"While Mr. Libby said Friday, 'I am confident that at the end of this process I will be completely and totally exonerated,' the speculation posits that Mr. Libby may seek a plea bargain that could win him leniency and perhaps limit or sidestep jail time. In return he would have to provide something Mr. Fitzgerald says he still wants: an unobscured view into who at the White House may have signed off on revealing Ms. Wilson's identity, in hopes of discrediting her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. . . .

"A former White House official who often worked with Mr. Libby said on Sunday evening, after talking with his former colleagues, that 'the scenario everyone is talking about is whether Scooter explains how this all happened.' That would include exactly what was said aboard Vice President Dick Cheney's plane in June, just before a few reporters began to hear that Ms. Wilson worked at the Central Intelligence Agency and had played a role in dispatching her husband on a mission to Niger."

Rove Dodges a Bullet?

Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "As it came down to judgment day this week in the investigation into the exposure of a covert CIA operative, White House advisor Karl Rove braced for a possible indictment. But at the last minute, new information, reevaluation of older evidence and negotiations with Rove's lawyers combined to spare the top White House aide for now, according to sources close to Rove and familiar with the inquiry.

"As recently as Tuesday, for example, prosecutors began to focus on a 2003 e-mail exchange between Rove and a White House colleague. The exchange could be seen as supporting Rove's contention that he had not intentionally misled investigators. . . .

"Fitzgerald, by extending his investigation beyond the Friday expiration date of the grand jury, could still decide to charge Rove, as well as other administration officials.

"But for now, Rove appeared to live up to the nickname bestowed upon him by Bush: 'Turdblossom,' a moniker that spoke to the strategist's uncanny pattern of surviving unpleasant situations, and sometimes seeming to thrive on them."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "Two sources close to Rove who asked not to be identified because the probe is ongoing said Luskin presented evidence that gave the prosecutor 'pause.' One small item was a July 11, 2003, e-mail Rove sent to former press aide Adam Levine saying Levine could come up to his office to discuss a personnel issue. The e-mail was at 11:17 a.m., minutes after Rove had gotten off the phone with Matt Cooper -- the same conversation (in which White House critic Joe Wilson's wife's work for the CIA was discussed) that Rove originally failed to disclose to the grand jury. Levine, with whom Rove often discussed his talks with reporters, did immediately go up to see Rove. But as Levine told the FBI last week, Rove never said anything about Cooper. The Levine talk was arguably helpful to one of Luskin's arguments: that, as a senior White House official, Rove dealt with a wide range of matters and might not remember every conversation he has had with journalists."

Howard Fineman and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek: There was relief but no joy inside the White House at these dodged bullets. 'This is a White House in turmoil right now,' said a senior aide, one of many who declined to speak on the record at a time of peril and paranoia. As for Rove, the aide said, some insiders believed that he had 'behaved, if not criminally, then certainly unethically.' "

And Dana Milbank and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post today that "two legal sources intimately familiar with Fitzgerald's tactics in this inquiry said they believe Rove remains in significant danger. They described Fitzgerald as being relentlessly thorough but also conservative throughout this prosecution -- and his willingness to consider Rove's eleventh-hour pleading of a memory lapse is merely a sign of Fitzgerald's caution.

"The two legal sources point to what they consider Fitzgerald's careful decision not to charge Libby with the leak of a covert agent's identity, given that the prosecutor had amassed considerable evidence that Libby gave classified information, which he knew from his job should not be made public, to reporters. Another prosecutor might have stretched to make a leak charge, on the theory that a jury would believe, based on other actions, that Libby acted with bad intentions.

"Another warning sign for Rove was in the phrasing of Friday's indictment of Libby. Fitzgerald referred to Rove in those charging papers as a senior White House official and dubbed him 'Official A.' In prosecutorial parlance, this kind of awkward pseudonym is often used for individuals who have not been indicted in a case but still face a significant chance of being charged. No other official in the investigation carries such an identifier."

Cheney Wounded

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post that Bush "must consider the degree to which Cheney has now become a liability in his efforts to recover politically. Two Republicans privately said yesterday the taciturn Cheney has become a major burden to the president, and that his association with an unpopular war and proximity to the Libby embarrassment will eat at the administration's credibility."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "The indictment also serves as fresh evidence to those Republicans who have known Mr. Cheney for decades and say he has changed, and that he reacted to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by becoming consumed with threats against the nation and his longtime desire to rid Iraq of Mr. Hussein."

Fineman and Wolffe write in Newsweek: "As he prosecutes 'Cheney's Cheney' for perjury, false statements and obstruction, Fitzgerald will inevitably have to shine a light on the machinery that sold the Iraq war and that sought to discredit critics of it, particularly Joseph Wilson. And that, in turn, could lead to Cheney and to the Cheney-run effort to make Iraq the central battleground in the war on terror. . . .

"Perhaps it's no surprise, therefore, that at least some administration officials -- speaking on background, of course -- have begun retroactively to dismiss Cheney's role. Even if they are rewriting history, the revision is politically significant -- and an ominous sign for Cheney in a city where power is the appearance of power. . . .

"Bush has grown more confident, aides say, having jettisoned the Cheney training wheels. 'The president has formulated a lot of his own views,' said an aide, 'and has a very firm idea of what he wants to do and accomplish with his foreign policy.' "

The Next Three Years

Balz writes in The Post: "President Bush's descent from the euphoria of an against-the-odds reelection victory one year ago this week to the current reality of a White House in crisis has been as rapid as it has been unexpected. Presidential advisers and outside analysts say the route back to genuine recovery is likely to be slow and difficult -- and without a clear blueprint for success. . . .

"One immediate question is how Bush will respond to the indictment of Libby and the still-unresolved situation of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. His statement on Friday after special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald outlined the perjury and obstruction charges against Libby was terse and narrowly focused on Libby's situation. Will he use the fact of an ongoing criminal proceeding to avoid offering the public a full accounting of what happened inside his own White House in the unveiling of CIA operative Valerie Plame?"

Nancy Gibbs and Mike Allen write in Time: "Top advisers have all but written off the rest of the year as a loss. The aim is to relaunch Bush's presidency in January with a new agenda rolled out in his State of the Union address, now that Social Security reform lies crumpled in a ditch. But to do that, he would need to adapt the style and system that served him well for four years but has now demonstrably failed; add new blood to a team that functions as a palace guard but not as an early-warning system or idea factory; and summon the charisma from his days as a candidate to reconnect with Americans in what has become his last campaign."

Richard W. Stevenson and Robin Toner write in the New York Times: "Over time, aides and advisers said, the hope is that Mr. Bush will be able to re-establish his image as a strong leader by showing people that he has plans to address issues like high energy costs, illegal immigration and the risk of an influenza pandemic. At the same time, they said, he will try to do a better job of explaining why prevailing in Iraq is essential to defending the nation from the broader threat of radical Islam."

Susan Page and Judy Keen write in USA Today: " 'A lot of the issues that we're going to be dealing with . . . affect the day-to-day realities of people outside the Beltway,' says Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director.

" 'We'll be going around the (media) filter to communicate directly with the American people about the things they care about.'"

Poll Watch

Richard Morin and Claudia Deane write in The Washington Post: "A majority of Americans say the indictment of senior White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby signals broader ethical problems in the Bush administration, and nearly half say the overall level of honesty and ethics in the federal government has fallen since President Bush took office, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News survey. . . .

"The poll, conducted Friday night and yesterday, found that 55 percent of the public believes the Libby case indicates wider problems 'with ethical wrongdoing' in the White House, while 41 percent believes it was an 'isolated incident.' And by a 3 to 1 ratio, 46 percent to 15 percent, Americans say the level of honesty and ethics in the government has declined rather than risen under Bush."

Here are the results . The poll also shows Bush's approval rating at a record low 39 percent.

Susan Page and Judy Keen write in USA Today: "A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday shows that a solid majority of Americans, 55%, now judge Bush's presidency to be a failure. . . .

"When Gallup asked in 1993 whether the first President Bush's tenure was a success or failure, 53% called it a success even though he had been defeated for re-election a year before. During Clinton's presidency, a majority never called his tenure a failure. Only once, after the health care debacle in 1994, did a plurality say it was a failure, by 50%-44%.

"In January 1999, after he had been impeached by the House and was awaiting a Senate trial, 71% called Clinton's tenure a success. . . .

"The USA TODAY poll found little optimism that Bush's turnaround strategy would succeed. By 55%-41%, those surveyed said the remaining three years of Bush's presidency would be a failure."

Here are the complete results .

Questions For the Press

Friday's indictment raise all sorts of questions for the journalists who have covered the Bush administration for many years. But what are they?

Howard Kurtz writes in his Washington Post column: "Now that an indictment has reached the highest level of the White House for the first time since Watergate, journalists face a minefield of potentially explosive questions: Are they enjoying a bit too much the spectacle of Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, having to resign over the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice?"

By contrast, Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times column (subscription required) about the Bush years: "Let me be frank: it has been a long political nightmare. For some of us, daily life has remained safe and comfortable, so the nightmare has merely been intellectual: we realized early on that this administration was cynical, dishonest and incompetent, but spent a long time unable to get others to see the obvious. For others -- above all, of course, those Americans risking their lives in a war whose real rationale has never been explained -- the nightmare has been all too concrete."

But, he writes, "the long nightmare won't really be over until journalists ask themselves: what did we know, when did we know it, and why didn't we tell the public?"

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