The drumbeat of media speculation was so loud last week that at times it sounded as though Karl Rove was on the verge of being thrown in the slammer.
"Is the man some call Bush's brain about to be indicted?" CNN anchor Heidi Collins asked Thursday night. MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked whether Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby might receive a presidential pardon "if they get indicted."
ABC's Ted Koppel said the possibility of a Rove or Libby indictment "had risen to the level of expectation," while pundit Paul Begala said on CNN: "If, in fact, the news reports are true, Karl could be in a lot of trouble."
So when Rove was not indicted in the CIA leak case Friday, it almost seemed like a victory for the White House. But it was clearly not a victory for the reporters and commentators who climbed far out on the limb of handicapping what a special prosecutor operating in secret might do.
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 perjury and obstruction of justice charges? What happened to the normal journalistic skepticism toward a single-minded special prosecutor, as was on display when Ken Starr was pursuing Bill Clinton?
The hostility directed at Patrick Fitzgerald when he was threatening reporters with jail seems to have faded now that his targets are senior aides to President Bush. Perhaps most important, are reporters, commentators, bloggers and partisans using the outing of Valerie Plame as a proxy war for rehashing the decision to invade Iraq? The vitriol directed at New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whether deserved or not, seems motivated as much by her role in touting the administration's erroneous WMD claims as in her decision to be jailed, at least for a time, to protect Libby.
In short, the leak prosecution is shaping up as a test of media fairness and responsibility in a polarizing age when many people on the left and right think the news business is hopelessly biased.
Two years after the Bush administration took the country to war based in part on inflated weapons claims that turned out to be wrong, the wounds still haven't healed. That's why liberal commentators like Arianna Huffington proclaim the so-called Plamegate scandal "worse than Watergate": They're not just talking about the outing of the wife of a White House critic, they're charging the administration with a campaign of deception that, in this view, is responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 Americans.
The press deserves some of the blame because, as editors at the New York Times, Washington Post and other news organizations have acknowledged, journalists were not nearly aggressive enough in questioning administration claims about Saddam Hussein during the run-up to war. And while Miller was a particularly prominent offender, she was hardly the only one.
If the media pound Bush over the Fitzgerald probe for months, they risk a public backlash. The president is already showing signs of following his predecessor's playbook in trying to deflect the scandal by focusing on other issues, a tactic that helped Clinton maintain his popularity despite the huge embarrassment of his dissembling about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Many people forget how much antagonism there was between the Clinton White House and the press corps, and how polls showed considerable public anger at journalists for obsessing on a sex scandal that a majority had decided was tawdry but not worthy of impeachment.
The underlying issue in the Plame debacle -- the alleged manipulation of intelligence used to justify a war and retaliating against a critic, Joe Wilson, who challenged that effort -- is arguably more important than the Clinton-era debates over whether oral sex was sex. And it was Cheney who told his aide that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA's Counterproliferation Division. But as Republicans have been quick to point out, there is no evidence that Bush was personally involved.
A few liberal commentators have cautioned their side against embracing the special prosecutor now that high-level Republicans are the target. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg wrote: "Rooting for Rove's indictment in this case isn't just unseemly, it's unthinking and ultimately self-destructive. Anyone who cares about civil liberties, freedom of information, or even just fair play should have been skeptical about Fitzgerald's investigation from the start." Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen said Fitzgerald should "return to Chicago and prosecute some real criminals." And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote: "I find myself repulsed by the glee that some Democrats show at the possibility of Karl Rove and Mr. Libby being dragged off in handcuffs."
In the end, journalists might stir more hostility this time than when they were publishing every allegation that could be vacuumed up from Starr's shop. Some leaks, of course, are important. In this case, reporters, led by columnist Robert Novak, were the conduits for what the indictment makes clear was an administration smear campaign against Wilson. That's why Fitzgerald dragged them before a grand jury, and that's why Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Miller -- the Times reporter who agreed to misleadingly describe Libby as a "former Hill staffer" -- will undoubtedly be called as witnesses if Libby goes to trial.
Libby may be charged with lying about his conversations with journalists, but much of the public resents the coziness that allowed those discussions to take place under a cloak of anonymity.
USA Today looked to be playing an early Halloween prank on Condoleezza Rice. In a routine wire photo on the paper's Web site, the secretary of State looked downright ghoulish, with demonic eyes reminiscent of a vampire's. It turns out USA Today had electronically manipulated the picture, taking it down only after blogger Michelle Malkin uncovered the deception.
USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson says the doctored picture was an inadvertent error. "This is just the case of a newly hired dot-com staffer who sharpened the photo and brightened her face," he says. That, says Anderson, "certainly failed to meet our editorial standards."
It's not the kind of e-mail you want to get from your boss. "Lloyd Grove is a [bleep]ing idiot. His page is stupid," wrote Martin Dunn, editorial director of the New York Daily News, where Grove plies his gossip trade. Grove discovered the missive -- first reported by New York Post rival Richard Johnson -- because Dunn mistakenly forwarded it to him. The back story: Grove had written about "an apparent case of mistaken identity" when People had to stop the presses to correct a caption on a photo of Jennifer Aniston and her new squeeze, Vince Vaughn, to reflect the fact that it was actually Aniston's movie double.
People deputy managing editor Editor Larry Hackett says Grove's item was "ridiculous" -- though accurate -- because inaccurate captions are fixed all the time. Hackett says he e-mailed Dunn to "express my displeasure" at the "nyahh nyahh" bit of journalism. Dunn then sent his friend Hackett the obscene response that also wound up in Grove's in-box.
"It's not worth worrying about," insists Grove, a former Washington Post gossip columnist, who says he walked into Dunn's office and jokingly threw the same epithet at him. "It wasn't pleasant, but both Martin and I are past it. We plan to have a wine-soaked dinner in the near future."
Fall-out from Libby Indictment
Boy, the White House must have been doing some serious leaking last night, since almost everyone had the Samuel Alito for Supreme Court story before the 8 a.m. announcement.
By the way, 55 percent judge Bush's presidency a failure, says USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-10-30-bush-cover_x.htm.
What's the MSM's damage assessment of the Libby indictment?
Time | http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1124238,00.html : " 'The problem is that the President doesn't want to make changes,' says a White House adviser who is not looking for a West Wing job, 'but he's lost some of his confidence in the three people he listens to the most.' Those three are his Vice President, Dick Cheney, whose top aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, has been charged with brazenly obstructing the investigation into who leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame; Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, who while not indicted has still emerged as a player in the scandal; and chief of staff Andrew Card, who gets some of the blame for bungling the response to Hurricane Katrina and even more for the botched Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. 'All relationships with the President, except for his relationship with Laura, have been damaged recently,' the White House adviser says."
Laura dodges the bullet!
Newsweek | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9865902/site/newsweek/: "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. As an aide now tells it, Cheney's influence began to wane from the start of the second term and effectively came to an end as the Fitzgerald investigation gained momentum in recent months."
Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/29/AR2005102901397.html: "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."
Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0510300284oct30,1,2969762.story?coll=chi-news-hed : "One year after President Bush comfortably sealed his re-election and set out to build a Republican majority designed to last well after his second term, the White House is teetering in a precarious balance that party leaders fear could have damaging implications far beyond Washington."
Philadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/nation/13030644.htm : "The Bush administration's rationale for war is now officially on trial . . . If this case is pursued in open court, it could lay bare the inner workings of Cheney's office, where the most powerful vice president in history worked with top aides to marshal pro-war arguments that have since been judged."
Slate's John Dickerson | http://slate.msn.com/id/2128987/nav/tap1/ wonders whether Libby can Rally the Right:
"As Bush plays down the scandal, he may be undermined by the kind of conservatives who recently pulled down Harriet Miers, and who may try to lead a more assertive political response. Karl Rove would prefer they stay quiet. He'd like it to become accepted wisdom that since Fitzgerald didn't indict him Friday, he's in the clear. Rove and his allies would like Patrick Fitzgerald's 22-month investigation to become known as the Scooter Libby affair. Cheney, whose natural instinct would be to lash out at the prosecutor, is extremely unlikely to do so, given that the criminal investigation centered around his office is ongoing.
"But will conservatives who revere the vice president and the hawkish worldview Libby was promoting go along? Many are instinctively inclined to rally around Libby the way they did around Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair. Instead of seeing the evidence of Libby's perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statements as efforts to protect his own skin, they'll decry the "criminalization of politics," and frame his actions in a patriotic narrative: Whatever lines Libby may have crossed, he was acting in the service of two noble goals. He was protecting his boss and defending the case for the war against Saddam Hussein. Supporters regard Libby's obsession with refuting Joe Wilson as proper. They see him as merely fighting back against a partisan Democrat who lied about his mission and his findings.
"Whether this line will play with the public the way North's good-soldier act did remains to be seen. Scooter is no Ollie. He's shy and evidently sane and doesn't wear a uniform. He also won't have the public stage of congressional hearings that North did to make his case. But conservatives may cast him in that role anyway."
The New Republic's Jason Zengerle | http://www.tnr.com/blog/theplank sees a major letdown:
"Well, that was much ado about nothing. I don't really think the indictment of the man who served as the Vice President's Chief of Staff -- and whose role in the administration was in fact much larger than that -- is no big deal. It is. But the way Democrats were talking about this case leading up to the indictment, this has to come as a letdown. After all, liberals believed that Patrick Fitzgerald was going to cripple the Bush administration and reveal the lies and deceptions behind the Iraq war. There was speculation that Fitzgerald would shine a bright, unflattering light onto the inner workings of the White House Iraq Group. There was talk that he was going to name a 'Constitutional officer' -- namely Cheney -- as an unindicted co-conspirator. And there were rumors that he was seeking to empanel a second grand jury to investigate who ginned up the fake 'Niger documents.'
"Maybe Fitzgerald just has a very impressive poker face, but it sure seemed from his press conference that none of those things is now going to happen. Even the talk, earlier in the day, that Rove was now in an excruciating legal limbo seems like it was overblown. The five indictments against Libby appear to be the only indictments Fitzgerald is going to bring. It seems there's a good chance Rove is off the hook and an even better chance that everyone else is, as well."
National Review's Byron York | http://corner.nationalreview.com/ offers this assessment "from people who know and follow the CIA leak case:
"The first is that they view the indictment against Lewis Libby as very strong. One source called it 'as clear-cut an indictment' as one would ever see, and the consensus is that Libby is in serious trouble. If Libby lied as much as Fitzgerald accuses him of lying, the sources say, then Libby acted in an astonishingly reckless way."
Another conservative, John Hinderaker | http://powerlineblog.com/ at Power Line, agrees that Libby screwed up, big time:
"As to Libby, the indictment is devastating. If the facts alleged are true -- and they are evidently based on the testimony of a considerable number of witnesses -- they can't be chalked up to inadvertence, misstatement or differing recollections. The indictment alleges that Libby had a number of conversations with various people in the executive branch, from Vice-President Cheney on down, about the fact that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA. It alleges further that Libby had conversations with several reporters in which Plame's CIA employment was discussed.
"The indictment says that Libby misrepresented his conversations with the reporters to the FBI and the grand jury. As described by Libby, he only agreed with what reporters told him about Plame and said that he had heard about her from other reporters. It is unclear whether Libby denied the various conversations he allegedly had with members of the executive branch to the grand jury, but the indictment quotes testimony where he seems to reaffirm that at the time he spoke to reporters, he didn't know anything about Plame other than what he had heard from public sources.
"So, if the indictment is true, Libby told a story under oath which differs, not only materially but vitally, from that of close to a dozen other witnesses.
"I can't imagine how Libby could have been foolish enough to lie to the grand jury, if indeed that is what happened. As a long-time Washington insider, he must have realized how grindingly thorough this kind of investigation is. How could Libby not have foreseen that his story would be contradicted by every other executive branch employee who was interviewed by the FBI? And how could he not have realized that perjury would be far worse than the original alleged offense?"
A very different view from the right as the Wall Street Journal | http://www.opinionjournal.com/weekend/hottopic/?id=110007476 editorial page weighs in:
"Mr. Fitzgerald has been dogged in pursuing his investigation, and he gave every appearance of being a reasonable and tough prosecutor in laying out the charges. But he has thrust himself into what was, at bottom, a policy dispute between an elected Administration and critics of the President's approach to the war on terror, who included parts of the permanent bureaucracy of the State Department and CIA. Unless Mr. Fitzgerald can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Libby was lying, and doing so for some nefarious purpose, this indictment looks like a case of criminalizing politics."
If you want some insight into the scars that Clintonites still wear from the special prosecutor days, check out this Huffington Post lament by Paul Begala | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-begala/the-false-moral-superiori_b_9674.html:
"The plain fact is that after a seven year non-stop investigato-rama, no senior Clinton White House official was ever even charged with wrongdoing. Much less indicted. Much less convicted. In fact, the highest-ranking Clinton official to be convicted of wrongdoing in connection with his public duties was the chief of staff to the Agriculture Secretary. Betcha five bucks you can't even name the Clinton Agriculture Secretary in question, much less his chief of staff. Unlike Nixon (whose Watergate crimes were manifest), unlike Reagan (whose White House was corrupted by the Iran-Contra crimes), unlike Bush 41 (who pardoned White House aides and Cabinet officers before they could testify against him), Bill Clinton presided over the most ethical White House staff in decades.
"And yet George W. Bush campaigned on a pledge to 'restore honor and decency to the Oval Office.' He spoke of moms and dads on the campaign trail who showed him photos of their children and asked him to give them a president their kids could be proud of.
"We all knew what he meant. With a wink and a nod he told us he wouldn't cheat on Laura. And after he took office Mr. Bush and his henchmen smeared the Clintonistas, falsely accusing them of vandalism and theft. They told the press that in this Oval Office the gentlemen would wear suits, the ladies, skirts . . . That is why this prosecution is important. No one is criminalizing policy differences. Rather, the Bush White House stands accused of hijacking the public policy process in service of a criminal conspiracy to smear, lie and obstruct justice."
Strip everything else away, though, and Libby, like Clinton, is accused of lying.