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KWAME HOLMAN: All week long political Washington was rife with speculation over what role senior White House aide Karl Rove played in revealing to journalists the identity of an undercover CIA employee. And late yesterday, the controversy erupted on the Senate floor.
SEN. HARRY REID: This is an abuse of power. This is a diversion.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democratic Leader Harry Reid first proposed an amendment to the homeland security spending bill aimed at Rove, denying access to classified information to any federal employee who discloses a covert CIA operative’s identity.
SEN. HARRY REID: At least one senior White House official disclosed the identity of a CIA intelligence officer to a reporter or reporters, and then this administration proceeded to deny and deflect the truth after it was discovered it had been leaked. It put this agent’s life in jeopardy — I repeat, put this agent’s life in jeopardy — plus people that she had dealt with from other countries.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans proposed their own amendment, aimed at Reid and his deputy, Dick Durbin, that would strip their security clearances for statements each made using classified FBI documents. It clearly was in retaliation for the Democrats’ efforts to discredit Rove. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions:
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Karl Rove has served this country exceedingly well. And one reason people are not wanting to involve themselves in public service is they go out and try to do something and then somebody accuses them of a crime. He had no intent whatsoever to do anything wrong, to violate any law or out any undercover agent.
KWAME HOLMAN: A heated debate ensued, lasting an hour and a half. Maine Republican Susan Collins, a leading moderate, admonished colleagues on both sides for deviating from the business of the day.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: We should not be doing this. This is exactly why the American public holds Congress in such low esteem right now. We should be focusing on the national security and homeland security challenges facing this nation. We should not be engaging in this debate. And I, for one, am going to vote “no” on both of the amendments before us.
KWAME HOLMAN: Collins’ words seemed to deflate the partisanship. Both amendments failed, and senators immediately got back to the business at hand: Homeland security.
JIM LEHRER: David, did Senator Collins have it about right as to what was happening on the floor of the Senate yesterday?
DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. This was like taking nursery school in a Senate day. It was unbelievable. Harry Reid was completely out of line. He was making accusations which there’s no evidence for so far that there was this leak, this unveiling, and then the Republican reaction was just immature.
I mean, the thing you have to remember about the scandal is we don’t know what happened. We don’t know if a crime was committed. We don’t know who leaked Valerie Plame’s name. There was this whole — there was this whole charge, you know, that there was this White House operation to discredit Joe Wilson. There’s absolutely no evidence for that.
We are in early days and so far what seems to have happened is that people called Karl Rove and said, “I heard that his wife was a CIA agent. Is that true?” And he apparently said, according to reports today, “Yeah, I heard that, too.” Maybe he heard it from reporters. So there’s this exchange but we have no idea of a crime and people are so far out in front of it, so disproportionate, it’s like a summer fever right now.
JIM LEHRER: Summer fever, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Let me first say, Jim, that Susan Collins, the senator from Maine, was absolutely right. The Congress now –
JIM LEHRER: That was weird, wasn’t it?
MARK SHIELDS: The lowest esteem since before the earthquake which drove the Democrats out and Republicans in. That ought to be a cautionary note, particularly to Republicans because when people take out their vengeance, they take it out on the party that’s controlling things as the Democrats found out to their everlasting pain in 1994 — by a 2-1 margin people think the Congress is in terrible shape.
We do know this, Jim. We do know that two journalists wrote about this. That Joe Wilson’s wife, Joe Wilson having gone there and come back and concluded and written that there was no — as the CIA knew and as the State Department knew — that there wasn’t any effort on the part of Saddam Hussein to buy the yellow cake uranium; that two journalists wrote about it and both of them talked to Karl Rove. Okay?
Now, what we’re seeing on the part of the White House, and this is a White House that has lost 24 points in George Bush as an honest and straightforward leader since January, what we’ve seen is Clintonian answers. “Well, he didn’t actually say it. He said it was Joe Wilson’s wife but he never spoke her name when revealing whether she was undercover.”
She was an undercover agent, she had a front. So, you know, what we’ve got is getting into all this parsing of words. There is no “is” is here. And I think this has been a terrible week for the White House. David’s right, there hasn’t been an indictment yet but right now all the reports are that Fitzgerald is –
JIM LEHRER: Special prosecutor.
MARK SHIELDS: Special prosecutor — is going after who was involved in a cover-up after the initial information came out.
JIM LEHRER: Whatever you think about it, do you agree with Mark that it’s been a bad week for the White House?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they have been Clintonian. The part where the White House was clearly wrong was when they said, “It’s ridiculous to think Rove was involved in this.” Well, Rove was involved in it.
Did he commit a crime? Based on the evidence now, no. Did he do anything particularly wrong? Maybe a little questionable but certainly not anything that deserves to be fired.
Listen, we had a situation where Joe Wilson said “the vice president sent me on this mission.” That turned out to be untrue. People were calling around. Rove was trying to scare people off that story saying, you know, don’t believe this guy. And Rove turned out to be telling the truth about that. And so that’s –
JIM LEHRER: You mean about — the involvement of the vice president?
DAVID BROOKS: The vice president. Wilson is questionable on all these issues. You said earlier that Wilson issued a report saying Iraq did not try to buy weapons.
That’s not what the report said. We have a Senate investigating committee, we’ve in Britain the Butler committee. Both of them concluded from Wilson’s own report that the Iraqis were trying to buy weapons. But what we’re doing is getting out of the reality and into all this realm of speculation.
MARK SHIELDS: David, the CIA, the administration has said the 16 words that were in the State of the Union were wrong. That’s what the whole thing was about. And this talking point, Jim, that Karl Rove was really interested altruistically in saving reporters from writing false stories, now, I’ve seen talking points in 40 years in Washington. This is the most ludicrous –
JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about the White House talking points?
MARK SHIELDS: That came out from the Republican National Committee and were used by virtually every Republican shoe leather this week.
If that was the case, if Karl was so concerned about stopping bad stories being written, he must have been awfully busy in 2000 when the stories were being circulated by the Bush campaign that John McCain was mentally unstable because of five years as a prisoner of war; when Anne Richards was too comfortable in the company of gays and lesbians when she was governor of Texas. I mean, but we had nothing to do with it.
DAVID BROOKS: This is unrelated to that –
MARK SHIELDS: It’s a pattern of clear behavior.
DAVID BROOKS: People are assuming that Rove is Satan and anything he does must be satanic. But what we know, the facts we actually know from the Cooper memo to his boss at Newsweek is that Rove was saying, “Don’t go too fast for this Wilson guy because the vice president had nothing to do with it.”
And he did it to steer Cooper in the right direction, it seems, but also to say, hey this thing isn’t too important, this report, this guy Wilson who makes us look bad, he is not as important as he made it out to be. So is it purely altruistic? No. But Rove was a lot closer to the truth than Wilson has been.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see this, David, as a legal situation that has been politicized or a political situation that has been legalized?
DAVID BROOKS: I want to make clear I don’t know what happened.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DAVID BROOKS: Because there are people who have looked at some of the judicial appointments and there are a lot of redacted pages where they do seem to imply that there is some sort of serious national security issue here. Why is Fitzgerald, who just seems to be an honest guy, pushing this so hard?
JIM LEHRER: He really is pushing.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Based on what we know –
JIM LEHRER: For the record, this is a guy who was appointed by a Republican attorney general to look into this.
DAVID BROOKS: So based on what we know, there is no reason he should be pushing this so hard. So maybe there’s something there, and I want to make it clear. I don’t want to get further out in front the way, you know, a lot of people are getting far out front, so I just want to make that clear.
MARK SHIELDS: But, Jim, there’s retaliation and vengeance — is at work here. Let’s go back to summer of 2003. They just found out that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction. They hadn’t found them. They weren’t there.
Saddam did not have these drone planes that could devastate the United States or surrounding regions, that the whole thing was a myth and the reasons for going to war. Then along comes this further evidence that the president’s case for going to war is further shredded.
They were angry. They were trying to stop. They were trying divert attention. They were trying to change the subject. That’s what it was about in the summer of 2003.