Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan says George W. Bush’s political guru Karl Rove arranged a private meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in 2005 when the two men were under mounting suspicion for leaking the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
Calling the scene “one moment during the leak episode that I am reluctant to discuss,” McClellan writes in his new memoir that, “in 2005, during a time when attention was focusing on Rove and Libby, [the meeting] sticks vividly in my mind. . . .
“Following [a meeting in Chief of Staff Andy Card’s office], Scooter Libby was walking to the entryway as he prepared to depart when Karl turned to get his attention. ‘You have time to visit?’ Karl asked. ‘Yeah,’ replied Libby.”
In the new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and the Culture of Washington Deception, McClellan doesn’t offer substantive evidence that Rove and Libby used the meeting in 2005 to coordinate their cover stories.
“I have no idea what they discussed, but it seemed suspicious for these two, whom I had never noticed spending any one-on-one time together, to go behind closed doors and visit privately,” McClellan writes.
“At least one of them, Rove, it was publicly known at the time, had at best misled me by not sharing relevant information, and credible rumors were spreading that the other, Libby, had done at least as much,” McClellan said. “I don’t know what they discussed, but what would any knowledgeable person reasonably and logically conclude was the topic?”
For more than a year in three separate appearances before a federal grand jury, Rove had insisted he was not a source for columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, two journalists who were told about Plame’s CIA identity when it was still secret.
On July 14, 2003, Novak wrote the first story exposing Plame’s CIA identity in the context of discrediting her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had challenged Bush’s bogus claims that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium from Niger.
Rove told the grand jury that he first learned that Plame worked for the CIA when he read it in Novak’s column, according to Rove’s attorney Robert Luskin. But the truth was Rove had been an unnamed source for both Novak and Cooper.
Press secretary McClellan was dragged into the middle of the Plame controversy in September 2003, after the CIA — angered by the blowing of Plame’s cover — got the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the leaking of her classified identity.
It fell to McClellan to steer reporters — and the public — away from suspicions that Bush’s inner circle was implicated in exposing an undercover CIA officer, an act that Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, once had likened to treason.
In early fall 2003, the White House tried to make it appear that the younger George Bush held the same standards.
“The President has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration,” McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. “If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.”
President Bush then announced that he was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.
“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the scheme to discredit Wilson got started — since he was involved in starting it — the President uttered misleading public statements that obscured the White House role.
Also, since the leakers knew that Bush already was in the know, they might well have read his comments as a signal to lie, which is what they did. In early October, McClellan said he could report that political adviser Rove and National Security Council aide Elliott Abrams were not involved in the Plame leak.
That comment riled Libby, who feared that he was being hung out to dry. Libby went to his boss, Vice President Cheney, complaining that, “they want me to be the sacrificial lamb,” Libby’s lawyer Theodore Wells said later.
Cheney scribbled down his feelings in a note to press secretary McClellan: “Not going to protect one staffer + sacrifice the guy the Pres that was asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of incompetence of others.”
In the note, Cheney initially ascribed Libby’s role in going after Joe Wilson to Bush’s orders, but the Vice President apparently thought better of it, crossing out “the Pres” and putting the clause in a passive tense.
Cheney has never explained the meaning of his note, but it suggests that it was Bush who sent Libby out on the get-Wilson mission to limit damage from Wilson’s criticism of Bush’s false Niger-yellowcake claim.
In those early days of the leak investigation, it appeared that the Plame case wouldn’t go very far with Attorney General John Ashcroft in charge, but Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame case in December 2003.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey then selected Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor to conduct the investigation. Fitzgerald proved to be more aggressive than his predecessors.
In late January 2004, Fitzgerald sent a letter to Comey, seeking confirmation that he had the authority to investigate and prosecute individuals for obstruction of justice, perjury and destroying evidence – as well as willful disclosure of an undercover CIA officer.
On Feb. 6, 2004, Comey responded in writing, confirming that Fitzgerald had the authority to prosecute those crimes.
By April 2004, Fitzgerald had begun focusing on contradictions between White House documents and sworn statements by Rove and other White House officials. The prosecutor also grew suspicious that Rove and Libby were trying to hinder his investigation.
Fitzgerald’s suspicions may have been on target. An e-mail that Rove had sent to then Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in early July 2003 revealed that Rove had spoken to Time reporter Cooper about Plame — a fact that Rove had omitted when he was first interviewed by the FBI.
Rove didn’t reveal to the grand jury that he had spoken with Cooper until Oct. 15, 2004, around the same time that a federal court judge compelled Cooper to testify about the identity of his source.
At the time of the Rove-Libby meeting in 2005 that was recalled by McClellan, Fitzgerald’s investigation was zeroing in on Libby, who was indicted in October 2005 on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
When Libby went on trial in 2007, Libby’s attorney Wells told the jury that the White House had decided that Libby must be “sacrificed” to protect Rove whose criminal exposure in the leak was so great that the White House feared it could cost the Republicans badly in Election 2004.
In his opening statement, Wells told the jurors that “the person … who was to be protected was Karl Rove … President Bush’s right-hand person in terms of political strategy. Karl Rove was the person most responsible for making sure the Republican Party stayed in office.”
As the trial proceeded, however, Wells never presented evidence backing up his “scapegoat” claim. Libby was convicted on four of five counts and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. (Bush later commuted the sentence, sparing Libby jail time and dangling the possibility of a full pardon later.)
One of Libby’s jurors, Denis Collins, said after the verdict that he and other jurors often asked “where’s Rove?”
Now, McClellan’s memoir is stoking renewed interest in the Bush administration’s handling of the Plame leak. On Wednesday, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Florida, called for McClellan to give sworn testimony to Congress.
Wexler described McClellan’s admissions and allegations as “earth-shattering” regarding both the cover-up of the Plame leak and the administration’s deceptive case for invading Iraq.
“Scott McClellan must now appear before the House Judiciary Committee under oath to tell Congress and the American people how President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and White House officials deliberately orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign to sell the war in Iraq to the American people,” Wexler said.
Anne Weismann, chief counsel for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said McClellan’s book reveals that a “conspiracy” of sorts did take place.
Weismann, whose group represents Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson in a civil suit against White House officials, said the disclosures show why the case requires a discovery order from the courts.
“This was an outrageous conspiracy by top White House officials to attack and discredit a high-level CIA operative, which is exactly what we have said and the Wilsons have said,” Weismann said about the case, which was dismissed by a lower court and is now on appeal.
An aide to Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the California Democrat continues to negotiate with Fitzgerald and Attorney General Michael Mukasey about obtaining documents that the special prosecutor uncovered during his investigation.
So far, Fitzgerald has turned over to Waxman’s committee “FBI 302 reports” of interviews with CIA and State Department officials and other individuals involved in the leak, according to a letter the congressman sent to Attorney General Mukasey in December.
But Waxman added that “the White House has been blocking Mr. Fitzgerald from providing key documents to the Committee,” including transcripts of Fitzgerald’s interviews with Bush and Cheney about the leak.