Politics of the CIA Leak Case
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JIM LEHRER: Now some reaction to the non-legal sides of the Libby/CIA leak case from two former White House chiefs of staff. Samuel Skinner had that position under the first President Bush. He’s now a professor of management and strategy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Leon Panetta was chief of staff during the Clinton administration. He now heads the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University in Monterey Bay.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Panetta, are there more issues than legal that the White House needs to deal with right now?
LEON PANETTA: Jim, the primary power and authority of the President of the United States is the moral authority he has as president. That’s important to his ability to use the bully pulpit. It is important to his ability to convince Congress to support any initiatives.
Moral authority is dependent on trust, and right now there’s a cloud over the White House as a result of everything that’s happened in the CIA leak case. That says that ultimately he has got to take action to try to move beyond what’s impacting on the White House right now and to do that in the very least he has to ask Karl Rove to step aside, take a leave, because he’s someone under investigation.
He ought to bring some new people into the White House to bring some new life and new credibility into the White House. And very frankly, he ought to accept some responsibility or in the very least apologize for having misled the American people by saying that no one in the White House was involved with this leak situation. Until he does that, he’s going to have a very tough time dealing with all of the other issues confronting this presidency.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Skinner, do you see the same cloud that Leon Panetta sees.
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, I think there is certainly a cloud and I’m sure the White House wants to get that cloud out of the way as soon as possible. They don’t want to rush to judgment, however. Karl Rove is presumed innocent. He’s under investigation. If every time someone became a target of an investigation, they had to get out of the office, Washington would be empty. Every time an allegation is made against someone, it is the obligation of the authorities to investigate it. Many of those investigations go nowhere. Many of the allegations prove without foundation. So I think we have to reserve judgment on Karl Rove, just as we have to reserve judgment on Lewis Libby until he gets his trial, where he will be presumed innocent until he’s proven guilty.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Panetta’s point about explanations and apologies and things like that, that do not have anything to do with the legal process?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, I think it’s quite clear that with the vice president’s chief of staff leaving under a cloud, the president is going to look for an opportunity when he is convinced there is a basis for it, that he will apologize or at least he’ll obviously indicate that he doesn’t accept this kind of conduct, he doesn’t approve of it. And I think the action by the chief of staff to the Vice President Cheney was correct in leaving. I think Karl Rove — if he is indicted — and there is no indication yet that he will be — will leave as well. And that takes a lot of the sting out of the cloud, so to speak. And I think that probably will happen.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Panetta, do you think the vice president, Dick Cheney, has some special responsibilities to speak to the public right now?
LEON PANETTA: I don’t think there is any question but that when you your chief of staff is indicted on five counts of perjury and obstruction and particularly someone as close to the vice president as Mr. Libby was, but in addition to that the indictment itself refers to the fact that the information here came from the vice president. I think because of that certainly the vice president is going to have to make clear to the American people just exactly what his role was. He’s going to have to testify, obviously, in this case.
But I think before that, the American people would want to know just exactly what was the vice president’s role with regards to this whole case. You know, again, this is not about the issue of whether or not ultimately Mr. Libby or Mr. Rove is found guilty. This is about the credibility of the White House. It’s about the credibility of the president and the vice president.
We’ve got a lot of issues that we’re dealing with in this country from Iraq to bird flu to Katrina, to high deficits to high energy prices. The presidency is important in dealing with those issues. But to do it, it needs credibility. So this isn’t a question of loyalty from the president to Karl Rove; this is a question of loyalty from Karl Rove and the vice president to the President of the United States. And the best way to earn that loyalty is to basically say the truth.
JIM LEHRER: Say the truth, Mr. Skinner? Does the vice president have an obligation to do that now?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, clearly he’s going to be a witness in the trial of his former chief of staff. I think it’s a little dangerous for people to be making statements in anticipation of trial. I think we’re going to find out probably pretty quickly what actually the vice president knew and didn’t know when he’s called as a witness and testifies, assuming he does. I think that will clear a lot of the air and a lot of us will have a better understanding of what is going on.
You know, I used to be the United States attorney in Chicago, the job that Patrick Fitzgerald has when he’s not special counsel. And I’ve got to say that the leaks and the information that is coming out has been primarily from the other side — everybody has talked about.
We really don’t know all the information because Patrick Fitzgerald has held his information very close to his vest. And I just want to make sure that we don’t run somebody out of town on a rail because of something that somebody said until we get the facts.
Now having said that, if, in fact, there is any indication that there were actions by people working for the president or the vice president, along the lines that have been charged, I think both those individuals just as Lewis Libby did; I think Karl Rove will recognize that he’s got to take time off to prepare for his trial.
But I think this investigation will be over pretty quickly from what I see; Patrick Fitzgerald understands the importance of getting to this quickly. So I would anticipate we’ll certainly have an answer by the end of the month, at least at the latest by Christmas. And then we’ll have a much better understanding.
In the meantime, the chief of staff is not involved at all, and President Bush’s Andy Card, is doing a great job. The national security office, current office is not involved. There has been no indication that they have been. So there is a lot of good people that can continue to do their work until we quickly get to the bottom of this.
And I think then the president and the vice president are going to have to make some very hard decisions as to what to say and not to say. But let’s wait until the facts come out a little bit more during the next 30 days or so.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Skinner, we just heard from Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post that this trial may, this legal proceeding may be really, really long. There may be difficult things about sources involving reporters. There may be all kinds of disputes over classified information. Are you saying that there should be no statement made by the president or the vice president specifically about this case, about what happened at the White House, until the legal issues are all resolved?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, I — I — I want to make sure what I said. I think the president will have to say something at the appropriate time. I don’t think it’s appropriate as it relates to Karl Rove until his investigation is complete. And that will be soon.
On the other hand, I don’t think the president or the vice president should do anything that is going to jeopardize the right of a free trial and a fair trial to both Karl Rove if he is indicted, and it’s unclear whether he will be or not, and Lewis Libby.
And so it is a delicate line that you walk here. You have got to make sure the American people understand what is going on and what you knew, what you didn’t know and if something went wrong, to apologize and make sure you’ve corrected it.
On the other hand, you don’t want to influence the jury or influence the judge, or influence the American people before this case comes to trial. But you’re going to have to do something before the case comes to trial because it is going to take awhile.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Panetta, speak to Mr. Skinner’s point that just as a practical matter, there is nothing that Vice President Cheney could say in public that would not be used later in the trial.
Is he not correct that anything anybody says right now, while it will eventually be used or could be used as evidence?
LEON PANETTA: I think the primary issue here is whether or not the credibility of the White House can be restored so that the president can do his job. That’s the main issue.
You know, of course there’s going to be a trial. Of course there is going to be an investigation. This thing could last anywhere from six to eight months by the time it gets to trial. And as all of us know with scandals in Washington, there are going to be additional reports. There’s going to be additional Washington Post stories. There are going to be New York Times stories. This is going to consume the White House. And it’s going to continue to be a cloud.
So I think what he has got to do is to follow the Ronald Reagan example, which is to say look, let’s move the people out that are being investigated. I think that’s only right. And it doesn’t reflect on their guilt or innocence. But they shouldn’t be in the White House. As long as Karl Rove is in the White House, his picture is going to be the one everybody focuses on at every cabinet meeting. You don’t want that.
So you ought to have him step aside. You ought to bring some new people in to add some credibility. And very frankly, there is no reason why the White House can’t apologize today for having said to the country no one in the White House is involved with this leak situation. If they at least did that, then they could put this aside for the moment.
Yes, it’s going to continue. But at least it puts it aside. It kind of establishes a clear path for the president so that he can begin to do his job as president. Otherwise, he’s going to constantly face questions on this issue.
JIM LEHRER: Do you dispute that, Mr. Skinner, that this story is going to be right there in front as long as — as long as it is still current and as long as it is still unresolved?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, I think that’s right. And obviously if all the parties involved were no longer at the White House, it might diminish the amount of attention it gets. But I want to make this point again. Allegations are filed all the time against individuals and they’re investigated. And if you are a public official and I did it for eight years as an investigator and prosecutor, we investigated those allegations.
A lot of those allegations do not turn out to be criminal conduct. And those cases are closed and if every time someone has to get out of his office because an allegation is made, then I think it’s a very dangerous precedent.
On the other hand, once there is some significant indication, like an indictment, I don’t think there is any question that the individual has to leave.
JIM LEHRER: Do you dispute based on your experience, Mr. Panetta’s point that whether or not, whether somebody is legally culpable or not, that this — the cloud itself affects the ability of the president and the White House to function, and that to clean house would help all these other issues that he mentioned, Iraq, budget deficit, whatever is on the list?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, I think that an argument can be made along those lines. I think there is a lot of people that continue to do their work every day in the White House, including the president and the vice president. I think they will continue to do so.
I think once Patrick Fitzgerald finishes his investigation, if there is no indictment, then I think this will go a little bit to the back pages. It will obviously be paid a lot of attention by the newspapers. But I think until Patrick Fitzgerald finishes his investigation, and I think he has an obligation to finish it very quickly, I think that cloud will probably have to stay around. But I think it can be moved one way or another within the next twenty to thirty days. And I think that’s Patrick Fitzgerald’s intention.
JIM LEHRER: You do not agree then with Mr. Panetta, that President Bush should follow the President Reagan example?
SAMUEL SKINNER: Well, it’s pretty hard for me to disagree with following President Reagan’s example generally. He’s a very successful president. So I’m to the going to do that. But every president handles it a little bit differently. Every fact situation is a little bit different. This is unique. The others, every administration lately seems to have some kind of allegation. And each one manages it.
I think that the president is probably more anxious than anyone else to find out exactly what Patrick Fitzgerald is doing so he can decide and Karl Rove can decide what to do. I might say that Karl Rove, if he thinks he can no longer be effective for the president of the United States, I think he will voluntarily leave without any request from the president. I think that’s the kind of relationship they have.
But I think we ought to wait and give him at least his chance to be heard. Let Patrick Fitzgerald make the decision and let the cards fall where they may.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Panetta, do you think that this may be an issue where there is no choice eventually, that something will have to be done over there?
LEON PANETTA: Oh, I don’t think there is any question. You know, I took the position when I was chief of staff that if somebody at a high level was under investigation, they ought to step aside. You ought not to have somebody in the White House of this country under investigation by a special prosecutor continue to operate in that job and expect that you are going to get the full value of that person’s work, number one.
But number two, any time someone is under investigation, it impacts on both the moral and effectiveness of the White House. There’s no reason why they can’t step aside. There is no reason why they shouldn’t take a leave while this investigation is going on. It’s again, to the benefit of the President of the United States.
JIM LEHRER: I think we have thoroughly established the disagreement between the two of you on this. Thank you both very much.
SAMUEL SKINNER: Thank you very much.