This is kind of a Zen column.
The problem for a blogger who's even going to mention the name Scooter or Karl is that whatever you write could be moot within minutes.
That was the dilemma facing Washington journalism yesterday (you'll see how I resolved it in a few moments). All anyone inside the Beltway is thinking about is who will get indicted, and when. But with precious little hard information, you find yourself writing stories that are one part informed speculation, one part tea-leaf reading and a whole lot of what reporters call B-matter.
Not that this would stop us, of course. The presses must roll. The newscasts must air. Not to weigh in (Fitzgerald will announce his findings Wednesday! No, Thursday! I meant Thursday!) would be a default of constitutional responsibilities. And some of us might not get paid.
That's why the cable nets went live yesterday morning from the federal courthouse to report . . . no news would be made today! Stay with us!
We'll get to the roundup in a moment. But my little contribution to this vacuum is to explore all these anonymously sourced stories.
Washington is abuzz with talk about what Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury, who they told about Valerie Plame, who told them, whether they told the truth and whether a prosecutor can prove that they did not tell the truth.
And virtually every bit of information, confirmed and alleged, comes from unnamed sources -- ironically, in an investigation of who anonymously outed a CIA operative -- who are trying to shape public understanding of a complicated narrative to someone's advantage.
The result is that after two years of near-total secrecy about the CIA leak investigation, a steady stream of sometimes-conflicting information is now flowing, invariably attributed to "lawyers close to the case" or similarly opaque sources.
As special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald nears a decision on whether to seek indictments of top White House officials, lawyers involved in theinquiry are using the news media to float bits of evidence or interpretations that are favorable to their high-level clients. The maneuvering makes clear that these lawyers are fighting a two-front war, trying simultaneously to avert criminal charges while seeking acquittal in the court of public opinion.
The rush of disclosures in the closing days of an investigation is a time-tested ritual of Washington scandals, and each time the questions are the same: Who leaked and for what reason?
The most dramatic example came Tuesday, when unnamed lawyers told the New York Times that Vice President Cheney had told Libby, his chief of staff, that Plame was a CIA employee weeks before her identity became public in 2003. The account, which referred to notes of a conversation between Cheney and Libby, was the first time the vice president has been tied to a White House effort to learn about Plame, the wife of an administration critic -- and it may have been leaked to cushion the blow of that disclosure.
"At the end of an investigation where prosecutors are about to make decisions, it's a bit unseemly," said Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney. "It has a macabre, manipulative quality about it that seems mindless. It seems like last-minute gasping. It's kind of embarrassing to watch as a lawyer. Whatever benefit there is will be very short-lived because it's too late to affect the outcome."
Lanny J. Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer, said such leaks are "a dangerous damage-control practice" authorized by officials "to distance themselves from whoever they think is in trouble by putting out information that is partially true."
The drumbeat of incremental disclosures also reflects a media culture in which news organizations feel compelled to publish something every day on an investigation that could shake the White House, even though little hard information is available and Fitzgerald appears to be running a leak-free operation. Newspaper reporters have worked late night after night, trying to piece together scraps or match rivals' scoops.
Defense lawyers sometimes provide reporters information on a not-for-attribution basis to counter leaks from law enforcement officials, as often happened during independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 1998 investigation of President Bill Clinton. Sometimes they are trying to get the bad news out themselves before someone else does it for them. And sometimes it is a way of communicating indirectly with other possible witnesses in the case.
On the morning that Clinton was to testify before a grand jury, the Times reported that "senior advisers" had "secured his agreement" to acknowledge "an inappropriate physical relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky." The pace of leaks in the Plame case has been rising. In early July, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff disclosed the contents of e-mails that Time's Matthew Cooper had written about his conversations about Plame with senior presidential adviser Rove, his previously confidential source.
On July 22, Bloomberg News cited "people familiar with the case" in reporting that Libby had testified that he learned about Plame from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, which conflicts with Russert's statement that he told a grand jury he did not know Plame's name and did not tell Libby about her. The story also said Rove had testified that he first learned Plame's name from columnist Robert D. Novak. On Oct. 6, the Times, The Washington Post and other news organizations quoted unnamed lawyers as saying that Rove had been summoned to the grand jury for a fourth time.
On Oct. 19, the Associated Press reported that Rove had testified that Libby may have told him that Plame worked for the CIA, before her identity was revealed by Novak. The Post quoted "a source familiar with Rove's account" about the same information the next day.
On Oct. 21, the Los Angeles Times quoted "former White House aides" as saying that Libby was angry about criticism from Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, began monitoring his television appearances and urged a public campaign against him.
The problem for journalists is that these accounts sometimes conflict. Tuesday's New York Times story seemed to undercut Libby's earlier account by naming Cheney as his original source of information about Plame.
Stanley M. Brand, a former House counsel, said the leaking lawyers "get caught up in the flattery of being solicited by the press and forget what their job is. It's a very seductive atmosphere." Asked about the public relations battle, Brand said: "Who cares? The only guy who matters is Fitzgerald." As a potential defendant, "all I care about is whether he charges me or not."
Meanwhile, here's the kind of stuff I'm talking about:
LAT | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-102605leak_lat,0,668287.story?coll=la-home-headlines: "The CIA leak case continued to build today toward a climactic finish as a grand jury investigating possible wrongdoing by top White House figures met behind closed doors for three hours and the special counsel met privately with the chief judge overseeing the case."
NYT | http://nytimes.com/2005/10/27/politics/27leak.html?hp&ex=1130385600&en=40a230e88ea5ea55&ei=5094&partner=homepage: "The special counsel in the C.I.A. leak inquiry met for more than three hours with the federal grand jury on Wednesday and later talked privately with the district judge in the case as the White House waited out another day in the expectation of possible indictments."
WP | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/26/AR2005102600532.html: "The prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation presented a summary of his case to a federal grand jury yesterday and is expected to announce a final decision on charges in the two-year-long probe tomorrow, according to people familiar with the case."
Wall Street Journal: "Joe Lockhart, the former Clinton administration press secretary, brought a coat and tie to work, expecting to be in demand for television interviews.
"Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada thought about canceling a press conference on terrorism, afraid it would be drowned out in the din of breaking news. John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, was lined up for interviews with eight broadcasters.
"And then . . . nothing happened."
Salon's Michael Scherer | http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/10/26/fitzgerald/index.html has a fascinating glimpse of the Fitzgerald Watch:
"After nearly two years of official, leak-proof silence, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed one thing Wednesday: He is willing to talk to reporters off-the-record.
"But it also became clear that he may be a bit out of practice as to the custom of speaking off-the-record. Typically, the source and the reporter must agree first to the terms of the discussion. Once agreed, the reporter must be prepared to go to his or her grave, or at least to the door of Fitzgerald's grand jury room, to keep that pledge. (See: Miller, Judith; Cooper, Matt.) "Fitzgerald's technique was a bit cruder. At two points near midday, he could be seen by passersby barreling down the first-floor hallway of the U.S. District Court in Washington, asking an entire pack of reporters, and presumably the passing public in earshot, to treat his comments as 'off-the-record.' "This reporter was present for the second hallway sprint when Patrick Fitzgerald went 'off-the-record.' It was a chaotic scene shortly after 1 p.m. With aides at his side, he walked at a brisk clip surrounded by more than a dozen scribes, one from nearly every major newspaper and network, many of them barking questions as they chased him. Though your faithful scribe had no opportunity to agree to Fitzgerald's off-the-record request, let alone make eye contact with him, you will not find the words he spoke here. Prosecutor Fitzgerald, of course, is not someone to argue with about the technicalities of reporter-source communications. He said a few words, and then he walked out the courthouse door. Before anyone could catch his or her breath, Fitzgerald had already made his way into the back seat of a champagne-colored Crown Victoria, which whisked him away.
"It can also be recorded in these pages that rumors had already been making the rounds through the courthouse for nearly an hour about the substance of the first 'off-the-record' utterance, a major event by the man who holds the nation's political future in his briefcase. Apparently, he had said, 'I'm leaving,' according to several secondhand accounts. In other words, Fitzgerald appears to have told reporters, 'off-the-record,' that his session behind closed doors with the grand jury was done for the day. There would not be, at least immediately, a press conference at the courthouse steps. No frog marching of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby or Karl Rove. No relief to the weeks of building speculation over the fate of the Bush White House."
Well, that tasted great, but it wasn't very filling, was it?
Slate's Tim Noah | http://slate.msn.com/id/2128888/ says the media emperor has no clothes:
"I know no better indicator of the current mood in Washington than this news story from the International Herald Tribune (via the New York Times Web site). The headline reads, 'No Announcement From Leak Counsel as Deadline Approaches.' The story is a cri de coeur about the absence of an indictment in the White House investigation. It's content-free and utterly useless except as a sign that newspapers are very anxious to learn what will happen. On this topic, even the absence of news is news!
"Other possible headlines in this vein: 'Tom DeLay Not Yet Convicted,' 'Al-Qaida Doesn't Strike Again in U.S.,' and 'Judy Miller Not Yet Canned By Times.' The headlines anybody can write. It takes a pro to write the stories."
But that's the whole post. Just when I was getting interested!
Arianna Huffington | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/plamegate-worse-than-wat_b_9522.html says Plamegate is worse than Watergate:
"The reason why Cheney, Rove, and Libby were so aggressive in attacking anyone who questioned their rationale for war is because, by the summer of 2003, it was becoming embarrassingly clear how wrong they had been about Iraq -- wrong about WMD, wrong about flowers thrown at our feet, wrong about the cost of the war. Had their incompetence not been so grotesquely manifest, there would have been no need for the attack on Wilson -- and the resulting cover-up -- that has now landed them all in such legal hot water.
"If Rove and Libby are indeed indicted (adding Cheney to our Merry Fitz-mas gift list would just be getting greedy), I believe it will shake up our government in a way we haven't seen since Watergate.
"To borrow a phrase from that era, let me make myself perfectly clear: I'm not saying that Plamegate is the same as Watergate. I'm saying it's worse. Much, much worse. No one died as a result of Watergate, but 2,000 American soldiers have now been killed and thousands more wounded to rid the world of an imminent threat that wasn't.
"Could there be anything bigger?"
Of course, Arianna is using the neat debater's trick of morphing the who-outed-Valerie story into the entire reason for invading Iraq--but it's also true that the two are intertwined.
Jason Zengerle | http://www.tnr.com/blog/theplank of the New Republic weighs whether TV has shirked its Plame duty:
"Over at HuffPo, Eric Boehlert | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-boehlert/the-sounds-of-network-tv_b_9565.html complains that the network's primetime news shows have given short shrift to PlameGate. Doing the dark and lonely work of Nexis searches, Boehlert reports that over the course of nearly 900 broadcasts, '60 Minutes' and 'Dateline' have done no PlameGate stories, and 'Nightline' has done only three.
"I suppose that's a somewhat surprising number, but the point Boehlert is trying to make with it -- that the mainstream media has been unaccountably wimpy when it comes to exposing the Bush administration's wrongdoing -- seems like a stretch. For one thing, I don't think the primetime news shows -- particularly 'Dateline' and increasingly '60 Minutes' -- are the venue for any serious news these days. But even more than that, I think one of the reasons PlameGate hasn't exactly been made for TV is the fact that Fitzgerald has run such a tight ship.
"With the leaks about the investigation being so few and far between, what, exactly, would these television shows be able to report? The dribs and drabs we've been getting are enough for newspaper and magazine articles, but I don't think they're sufficient for highly visual, 10-minute TV segments. No, this investigation -- and the heated, quasi-informed speculation it has spawned -- is better left to cable shoutfests and blogs. After all, who'd want to see Stone Phillips lower himself to that sort of thing?"
And here's the perfect Halloween story. Michelle Malkin | http://michellemalkin.com/archives/003780.htm catches USA Today doctoring a photo to make Condi look like a vampire. Check it out, she's got before-and-after shots.
And here's the editor's note | http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-10-19-rice-congress_x.htm:
"The photo of Condoleezza Rice that originally accompanied this story was altered in a manner that did not meet USA TODAY's editorial standards. The photo has been replaced by a properly adjusted copy. Photos published online are routinely cropped for size and adjusted for brightness and sharpness to optimize their appearance. In this case, after sharpening the photo for clarity, the editor brightened a portion of Rice's face, giving her eyes an unnatural appearance. This resulted in a distortion of the original not in keeping with our editorial standards."
Translation: We screwed up.
If you're wondering how the president of CBS Sports can also be the president of CBS News, I've got the full scoop here | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/26/AR2005102602574.html.
Whither Judy? The Wall Street Journal | http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB113029079693179566-lMyQjAxMDE1MzIwNjIyOTYwWj.html has a clue:
"New York Times reporter Judith Miller has begun discussing her future employment options with the newspaper, including the possibility of a severance package, a lawyer familiar with the matter said Tuesday.
"The discussion about her future comes several days after the public rupture of the relationship between the Times and Ms. Miller, a 28-year veteran of the paper. Both the editor and the publisher of the Times have expressed regret for their unequivocal support for Ms. Miller when she spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the unmasking of a Central Intelligence Agency operative.
"The negotiations began with a face-to-face meeting Monday morning between Ms. Miller and the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., said the lawyer familiar with the situation. A spokeswoman for the New York Times declined to comment. Ms. Miller didn't return calls."