Transcript

Valerie Plame Leak: Rove's Role

Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005; 12:00 PM

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove discussed the role of Valerie Plame with Time magazine's Mathew Cooper but did not identify her by name, according to his attorney Robert Luskin , who says that Rove signed a waiver allowing prosecutors to talk to reporters with whom he had contact. The revelation of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA officer in a column written by columnist Bob Novak in 2003 led to an investigation into the source of the disclosure. Cooper has agreed to testify to a grand jury, while New York Times reporter Judith Miller is headed to jail for her refusal to reveal information about her sources.

Washington Post staff writer Dana Milbank was online Tuesday, July 12, at Noon ET to discuss Rove's role in the Plame leak.

Read today's Washington Sketch: Spokesman Holds Tongue During Intense Grilling.

A transcript follows.

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Dana Milbank: Good afternoon. There's war in Iraq, bombs in London, a Supreme Court vacancy -- and all Washington cares about is what Karl Rove said two years ago to Matt Cooper. So let's get on with Topic A.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Have you ever seen the White House spokesman come under this much fire, if so, when was the last time?

Dana Milbank: The last time McClellan got this kind of a drubbing was when he started the job two years ago. The topic then, appropriately enough, was the Plame affair and the Niger uranium story. It's no small irony that the matter continues to haunt him. It's also worth pointing out that the leak occurred on Ari Fleischer's watch, and the hapless McClellan inherited the story.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Dana,

Very entertaining analysis of the press briefing in today's paper. One aspect has me confused: Since it seems as if Rove's involvement in the Plame leak has been Washington's worst-kept secret for months, why did it take so long for McClellan to face the sorts of tough questions he did yesterday, and why does it take a Newsweek story about Time magazine notes to trigger the questioning?

Also, and more interestingly, does having evidence as we now have that the White House has baldly lied to the press core mean that the White House press corps' posture will become more aggressive, more appropriately distrustful?

Thanks.

Dana Milbank:

Couple of things caused yesterday's perfect storm. Because of the G-8 meeting last week, it was Scott's first on-camera briefing since Rove's lawyer acknowledged Rove had been Cooper's source, and since the Newsweek story providing further details of the Rove-Cooper conversation.

I asked McClellan at yesterday's briefing whether he was concerned that this would ruin his entire credibility. He said he hoped people would know he's a decent guy. It's true that he's a decent guy, but this episode has badly discredited him by making him look either dishonest or duped.

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Hampton Cove, Ala.: "Hapless"? How do you think the public feels about reporters? You are a partisan bunch. I compare yesterday's White House press briefing and the furor over a Fox reporter who asked a soft question last month. The MSM is an arm of the DNC. The true low was Terry Moran convicting Karl Rove, yet I seem to remember his sympathetic "due process" comments for Al Qaeda terrorists as Gitmo. Do you wonder why Americans have so little respect for the media?

Dana Milbank: Actually, the best part of yesterday's briefing may have been when Fox's Carl Cameron asked Scott if the president still has faith in Rove, and Scott wouldn't say.

So by your intriguing chain of connections, Fox News is an arm of the DNC?

Americans have so little respect for the media because partisans on both the right and the left have devoted themselves to organized attacks on the press's credibility in recent years. It's the political equivalent of heckling the referee in a sporting competition in hopes of getting better calls.

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Tampa, Fla.: If it is determined that Rove did not technically commit a crime, how serious do you think this whole episode will then be? Will the Bush administration be able to rely on the lack of an an indictment to allow Rove to survive in place?

Dana Milbank: This is an important point. The statute about the leaking of classified information is very specific, and it has been said from the very start that it would be extremely difficult to find somebody in violation of it.

Clearly the White House is setting up a defense in which Rove et al are vindicated because they assume Fitzgerald will find no evidence that a crime was committed. Whether that washes with the public is different matter. Clinton got out of legal trouble by providing the definition of 'is,' and Cheney got out of his 'last throes' by defining 'throes' (but not 'last'). My sense is the public doesn't care for this hairsplitting -- particularly when an administration prides itself on straight talk.

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Washington, D.C. : Mr. Milbank,

You wrote that "this episode has badly discredited him by making him look either dishonest or duped."

Was Mike McCurry discredited when he was unable to tell the truth about President Clinton's foibles? Or Joe Lockhart? Or Dee Dee Myers or George Stephanopolous?

It seems like the press let Clinton's press secretaries emerge with their reputations intact. Why not McClellan? It wouldn't be that the press is harder and less forgiving of Republicans, is it?

Dana Milbank: The McCurry case is instructive, but not for the reason you cite. McCurry deliberately kept himself in the dark and was careful not to offer a vindication of Clinton. Recall that he would not participate in Clinton's parsing.

McClellan got himself into trouble by offering a full-throated vindication of Rove that has now been disproved.

If you suspect the press is easier on Democratic spokesmen then Republicans, I suggest you read Fleischer's view: that the press, though vaguely liberal, is much more interested in conflict and is tough on both sides.

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Potomac, Md.: Any thoughts on the speculation that Judith Miller may have actually been the one who informed Karl Rove that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and the real "target" of the grand jury investigation is who provided this information to Miller?

Dana Milbank: Wow. Maybe the Cubans were involved, too.

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Washington, D.C.: Would Cooper, Miller and Novak be able to figure out that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent with only the information Rove gave Cooper in the emails? Or is it correct to assume that either Rove told more Cooper Miller or Novak or that someone else was involved with the leak?

Dana Milbank: My colleague Mike Allen has reported from the start that there were two White House officials who had discussions about Plame with reporters before the Novak column ran.

It's entirely possible that the Rove-Cooper episode, while politically explosive, is peripheral to the investigation.

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Olympia, Wash.: Out here in the hinterlands, I wonder if the whole Plame brouhaha is another internecine quarrel among the D.C. political powers. Just how "secret" are identities of people like Plame among Washington insiders? Was the "outing" a technical misstep in which various officials forgot the rules in a musty federal code? Or is this a real issue?

Dana Milbank: This remains to be seen. But the recent developments take the story from a rather technical one -- about uranium in Niger and the technicalities of a statute about classified information -- to an easily understood nugget: that the president's top political adviser unmasked a CIA operative.

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Cleveland, Ohio: Beside not being forthcoming with the press, what crime or wrongdoing has Karl Rove committed here?

Dana Milbank:

I'm not about to accuse Rove of a crime. Let's leave that to the professionals.

On the other hand, I think it would be terrific if 'not being forthcoming with the press' were a crime, punishable by being frogmarched out of the White House.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Dana. Great column today. Media reps sounded outraged yesterday, but will momentum continue? Do you think national media will stick with this important story, or will it fall by the wayside as Washingtonians go on vacation, or as Supreme Court nominations heat up, etc.? A related follow-up question: Why do you think Bob Novak is getting a "free pass" from the media and public eye? He was the writer who actually revealed Plame's name in The Post. Do we know if he has cooperated with the special prosecutor, and therefore avoided threats of imprisonment?

Dana Milbank: Certainly the White House is calculating that the story will blow over. And they may be right. The investigation could go on for some time in secret, with no new revelations. With the president's party in control on the Hill, hearings are unlikely. The press corps can be relied upon to ask the questions -- as it did yesterday -- but generally does not take on the role of advocacy in the absence of a congressional effort.

I'm no expert on this part of the story, but it's my understanding that Novak has cooperated with the investigation and that Fitzgerald is well aware of his sources.

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Seattle, Wash.: It is true that the White House will really lose some permanent credibility in this matter; however, Joseph Wilson didn't make things any better in 2003 when he looked forward happily to the idea of Rove getting "frog marched". As the husband of the victim in this case, don't you think his reaction at the time should have been more angry at the suspected retaliation and possible crime and less gleeful that a particular person might pay for it?

Dana Milbank: Certainly Wilson and Plame have lost some of the sympathy and respect they had at the start, in part because of events like the Vanity Fair photo spread and in part because of Wilson being so active in the anti-war movement. That has allowed people to claim partisanship, as the RNC's Ken Mehlman did this very morning.

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McLean, Va.: Good Afternoon, Dana

Do you believe there is any way president Bush will come out of this whole situation unscathed? It seems that if he fires Rove he has kept his word, but given the Democrats a big victory and loses his political architect. However, if he does not fire Rove he doesn't give in to Democrats but certainly risks scorn for not following through on his word to fire anyone involved. Your thoughts?

Dana Milbank: This is tricky. McClellan gave a blanket statement saying anybody found to be involved in this whole matter would no longer be employed in this administration. Bush, in retrospect, was more specific. He said he'd fire people who were found to violate the law, or found to leak classified information. This is why Rove, by employing some clever parsing, can stay on the job without violating the Bush standard, even if it violates the McClellan standard.

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Alexandria, Va.: "There's war in Iraq, bombs in London, a Supreme Court vacancy -- and all Washington cares about is what Karl Rove said two years ago to Matt Cooper."

Not only is it unprofessional to give away your bias as a reporter, but really? The outing of Plame could be an act of treason and not only cost her a career, but may have cost operative's lives. Do you consider treason is not a trifle matter?

Dana Milbank: OK, and here's another comment somebody sent in.

"College Park, Md.:

Mr. Milbank - Have you ever considered possibly recusing yourself from reporting on this topic? Yes, I know you publicly espouse the "journalists creed," in that you are unbiased and are only interested in reporting the facts and exposing the truth. But - at least to this fairly informed reader - the underlying tone to almost all of your writing on Karl Rove and Plamegate seems rather vindictive and almost bitter."

Maybe Alexandria and College Park can fight this one out. Am I a bitter liberal partisan, or an apologist for treason from a conservative administration?

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San Diego, Calif.: Have any Republican leaders come out against the White House's silence or Rove's admitted leaking of a CIA operative's identity (maybe he didn't say her name but it's the same result.)?

Dana Milbank:

As we say euphemistically, some Republican leaders have done so 'privately.' That means not on the record. That means Fitzgerald would have to throw us in the pokey before we identify the sources.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Why would Bush/McClellan make those statements when Rove was involved? With Rove being such a "master manipulator", wouldn't he have had more control over their statements? What was his motivation to let the comments out?

Dana Milbank: This is perplexing. McClellan said he had spoken with Rove himself. He also said the President was certain that Rove was not involved. Even at the time, this was not particularly helpful, because it only started a guessing game. If not Rove, was it Scooter Libby? Eventually, McClellan stopped playing the guessing game. In retrospect it would have been better for him if he didn't start in the first place.

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Washington, D.C.: What odds would you give at this point that this will lead to Rove's firing?

Dana Milbank: My predictions are often comically off, but here goes: This is Karl Rove's town, and the rest of us -- President Bush included -- are just living in it.

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Detroit, Mich.: What exactly is "double secret background?" How does a journalist make use of such information? Presumably, Cooper would have to corroborate any information he got from Rove with another source, right?

Dana Milbank:

An excellent question. I believe it was originally coined by Dean Vernon Wormer in Animal House.

I should point out that this entire online chat has been on double secret background, and anybody revealing its contents will be frogmarched into a cell adjacent to Judy Miller's.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.

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