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White House
10.28.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS. A federal prosecutor's indictment in the White House leak case reaches into the inner circles of the Bush administration…

We look beyond the legal issues, to new questions about how the administration used the press to make the case for war.

MATT COOPER: I wrote a piece basically decrying the leaks, and saying these leaks were-- unusual and strange, and they're worth calling attention to.

BRANCACCIO: And, Christine Todd Whitman on what it all means for the president.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: He is clearly hurt. He can get by it, but it's going to take time.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

One indictment today. It is Lewis Libby, the Chief of Staff of Vice President Dick Cheney — one of the Bush administration's most powerful figures. The charges are all felonies: two of perjury; two of making false statements and one charge of obstruction of justice. Libby today resigned.

The special prosecutor is not ruling out future charges against others in the CIA leak case. All this is a problem for the White House high on the Richter scale.

We will take you now inside the investigation. What did officials tell reporters and why? Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Brenda Breslauer have been looking at what this case says both about the state of journalism and about how the "spin doctors" in The Bush White House do business.

MARIA HINOJOSA: January 2003. President Bush makes a forceful case for war in Iraq in his State of the Union address. He includes these 16 words… words that still resonate today.

PRESIDENT BUSH, JANUARY 2003: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Uranium implies a nuclear threat…a key piece of the administration's case for going to war.

May 2003. Two months after the invasion of Iraq and no weapons of mass destruction have been found. A credible voice surfaces in THE NEW YORK TIMES and then THE WASHINGTON POST challenging the uranium allegation. An unnamed former ambassador says he had been dispatched the previous year by the CIA to the country of Niger to investigate. He found the claim to be false. Those 16 words, then, were wrong.

Today, more than two and a half years into the war in Iraq, the tale of what happened to this whistleblower has reopened debate about the larger story of how this administration worked to market and protect its case for war. And where was the media? Was the public's watchdog too complacent in the face of White House spin?

HELEN THOMAS: They should have been much more skeptical. And they weren't at a time when it meant life and death.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Legendary reporter Helen Thomas has been watching the White House spin for more than forty years.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Talk about the talking points that you've seen used by this administration. What makes it different than other administrations?

HELEN THOMAS: Distortion of history in the biggest way, even when the facts are contrary. We know who invaded Iraq. And we know what the reasons they gave. And none of the reasons turned out to be true.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Case in point: Iraq's alleged nuclear threat.

DICK CHENEY: Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.

DONALD RUMSFELD: He is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

GEORGE BUSH: We cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: The nuclear issue…this was a central part of the administration's case.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Michael Isikoff is an investigative reporter at NEWSWEEK magazine.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It was being pushed very vigorously by the Vice President and the Vice President's office, the idea that Saddam was reconstituting its nuclear program.

MARIA HINOJOSA: According to THE WASHINGTON POST, the escalation of nuclear rhetoric, including the term "mushroom cloud," coincided with the formation in August 2002 of the White House Iraq Group — a little known task force charged with educating the public about the alleged threat from Saddam Hussein. Among its members: Bush's senior political advisor Karl Rove, Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, communications guru Karen Hughes, and then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

And the administration was spinning reporters in other ways, says Isikoff.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: It's the government officials saying, "Trust us. If you could see what we see, if you knew what we knew, if you saw all the secret intelligence that we can't share with you, you'd understand why we're doing this." And, in this case that was arguably a pretty big misrepresentation.

MARIA HINOJOSA: July 2003. Still no weapons of mass destruction. The mysterious ambassador goes public.

The ambassador, Joseph Wilson, appears on NBC's MEET THE PRESS the same day he writes an op-ed in THE NEW YORK TIMES about his CIA-sponsored mission to Africa. He makes an explosive charge: "Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program," he writes, "was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

The very next day the administration backtracks on the uranium claim. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer admits "the information…did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect."

Around the same time, we now know, White House officials start a whisper campaign to question Wilson's credibility. The subtext: Wilson's trip was a boondoggle arranged by his wife.

Conservative columnist Robert Novak is the first to publish. He reports that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA: "Two senior administration officials told me," Novak writes, "Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate…"

It turns out that Wilson's wife was working undercover at the CIA. It also turns out that there's a law making it a crime for a government official to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert CIA agent.

JOSEPH WILSON: Somebody leaked the name of a covert operative who shouldn't have.

MARIA HINOJOSA: A political firestorm ensues. The CIA requests an investigation, a special counsel is appointed. Patrick Fitzgerald is to determine who leaked Valerie Plame's name.

Over the course of the investigation, president Bush underscores its seriousness:

PRESIDENT BUSH: If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But behind the scenes, a message has gone out to Wilson and others like him.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What's the broader story that Americans should be concerned about?

HELEN THOMAS: That there is retribution against dissent. And that in this country, dissent is very, very important. It's so important to democracy.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Though the White House tries to distance itself from the leak. Speculation centers on two senior officials, Karl Rove and Lewis Libby. The White House flatly denies it.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved. I had no doubt of that in the beginning, but I like to check my information to make sure it's accurate before I report back to you, and that's exactly what I did.

QUESTION: So you're saying -- you're saying categorically those individuals were not the leakers or did not authorize the leaks?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: That's correct.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Did you believe him?

HELEN THOMAS: Yes, I did. Because I thought he went to them directly. Obviously they wanted to clear the decks. I mean you don't stand at that podium, which is most hallowed ground, almost. It's the official podium. It tells the American people the White House, the President is speaking. It seems to me you don't abuse that podium. I believed him. Yes.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Even Karl Rove denies he's involved.

ANDREA OWEN: Did you have any knowledge or did you leak the name of the CIA agent to the press?"

KARL ROVE: No.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But a few reporters know otherwise. TIME magazine's MATT COOPER had been on the receiving end of the whisper campaign about Wilson's wife. He writes an online article and makes a promise that many journalists make... To project his source's identity.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You were protecting a high level political operative in the Bush Administration, who many people say was using you to spin a story.

MATTHEW COOPER: Well, first of all, I don't think I was spun. I wrote a story called "The War on Wilson," and rather than-- unlike Robert Novak, who served as a kind of transmission belt for the leakers and simply, you know, leaked whatever disparaging thing he heard, I wrote a piece basically decrying the leaks, and saying these leaks were unusual and strange, and they're worth calling attention to.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, wants Cooper to testify before the grand jury about his government sources. Cooper is set to go to jail rather than comply.

MATT COOPER: This is a sad day not only for journalists but for our country.

I got up that morning and I put on a kinda cheap pair of shoes, 'cause I wasn't sure I'd get 'em back. And, I said "Goodbye" to my six year old my wife was supportive of what I had to do. I hope that doesn't reflect badly on the state of my marriage that she was more than willing to have me go to prison. But, she-- but, she was.

MARIA HINOJOSA: TIME Incorporated fights the subpoenas all the way to the Supreme Court, and loses. So the company turns over Cooper's notes and emails to the prosecutor.

NORMAN PEARLSTINE: This was the most difficult decision I've had to make in 37 years in the news business. And I say that because a lot of editors whom I'm respect, including some of my role models, really disagreed with that decision.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Norman Pearlstine, Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc, says he turned over the documents because of the unique circumstances of this case: a criminal investigation into a national security breach. Keep in mind, he says, this confidential source was not a traditional whistleblower.

NORMAN PEARLSTINE: A confidential source who gives you information and who puts his or her livelihood, possibly his or her life, his or her reputation on the line in order to give information to the media that is in the public interest, is someone who clearly deserves confidential source status. I think it's a somewhat different question, whether the President's political advisor trying to shoot down a column by a whistle blower, deserves the same kind of legal commitment.

MARIA HINOJOSA: In fact, that advisor, Cooper's source, turned out to be none other than Karl Rove.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Did you have any idea at the time when you were having this conversation with Karl Rove that there was anything problematic in that conversation when he revealed to you that-- that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA?

MATTHEW COOPER: Well, I thought it was unusual, and I-- certainly I thought it was newsworthy and interesting, I didn't know it was necessarily illegal. I had no reason to believe she was undercover at the time.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Time Inc reveals Cooper's source to the prosecutor but not to the public. It isn't until NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff gets ahold of a Cooper email, that the public sees in it black and white. The source is Karl Rove.

Cooper wrote: "spoke to Rove on double super secret background…his big warning…don't get too far out on Wilson… It was, KR said, Wilson's wife … Who authorized the trip… Please don't source to Rove or even WH…"

MARIA HINOJOSA: When you found out that Karl Rove, in fact, was the source for Matthew Cooper what was your reaction?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: I was fairly astonished. I didn't think it would be that clear. I didn't think that he would emerge as the principle source who Matt Cooper was going to go to jail to protect.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And what's your sense about the fact that someone like Karl Rove would need to have confidential status?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look. Everybody in government likes to talk on background. That's not all that unusual. And political operatives like Karl Rove like to dish dirt on background. That's the way they operate.

What's distinctive here is you have a political operative, Rove, who is also in a high level policy making position in the White House. So he uses those skills, which include dishing dirt about political opponents. And make no mistake about it, they do all do it. Democrats and Republicans. But Rove is in the high level powerful position in the White House.

MARIA HINOJOSA: No journalist is more entangled in the White House spin machine in this story than NEW YORK TIMES reporter Judith Miller. She too has a high-level government source who tried to undermine Wilson. When the prosecutor subpoenas her to testify, she fights it in the courts and loses. Then goes to jail for contempt rather than reveal her source.

After serving 85 days in jail, Miller agrees to testify

JUDITH MILLER: Thank you very much, thank you.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Her source turns out to be Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff who had also spoken to Matt Cooper. So what was Libby's interest in the uranium story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Libby was a principal player in in the matter surrounding Joe Wilson. Because the whole nuclear argument was Vice President Cheney's brief. He pushed it. He pushed it vigorously.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Do you think that this is a case where, for example, government officials used their ability to have confidential status basically to spin the country in terms of this war? Spin the media?

NORMAN PEARLSTINE: Doesn't that happen every day in Washington? Am I missing something here? Isn't one of our biggest problems in terms of coverage from Washington the fact that everybody is off the record on everything?

MARIA HINOJOSA: But on the record it's hard to get a straight answer.

QUESTION: I'm wondering about your response to charges that you, were, in fact, spinning the media — and as a result, the American public — when you consistently said in the Valerie Plame case that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove had nothing to do with it.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, tell me your name and who you're with?

QUESTION: Maria Hinojosa with Public Television NOW.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Okay. Nice to -- welcome to the briefing, first of all. These questions have come up; there is an ongoing investigation. And for months and months and months, we've said that we're not going to comment on the investigation while it's ongoing.

HELEN THOMAS: There is no democracy unless these people are questioned. You cannot have an informed people unless you can get the answers.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But what about the handful of reporters who knew Scott McClellan's answers about Rove and Libby's were false? Did they have a duty to report on what appeared to be a cover-up?

MARIA HINOJOSA: So when Scott McClellan was up there in the briefing, and he was saying, specifically, that he knew Karl Rove wasn't involved. And that's not how the White House operates. I mean, didn't you feel that you had an obligation at that point, to say; Hey, wait a second. This is exactly how it operates.

MATTHEW COOPER: Well, I felt my obligation was to protect the confidentiality of my sources. Now if someone else in the administration said something that was not accurate, you know, that was-- you know believe me I certainly had that urge. But I thought the greater importance was to maintain the confidentiality of sources.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: You have to honor the commitments you make in the conversation you have with the source. But that's something very different than protecting the source. We shouldn't be in the business of protecting sources if they're high government officials. We honor our commitments not to disclose their identity for particular conversations that we have with them. But there's nothing that stops us from going back to those high government officials and saying, "We may have talked to you-- I may have talked to you off the record before, or on background before, but there's new information on the table now. And now I wanna talk to you on the record." And-- we need to report on this. Because I think, at the end of the day, the ultimate obligation is not to the source, it's to the reader. It's to the truth.


BRANCACCIO: It's been a tough week for the Republican Party. Not only has the White House been preoccupied with the special counsel's investigation, but Harriet Miers, the president's controversial Supreme Court nominee, withdrew her name after it became clear that she faced an uphill battle for confirmation by the Senate. What's unusual about that is that many of the senators opposing her nomination were from the president's own party.

Here with us to try and shed a little light on what's up with the ruling Republicans is a member of that party, the former governor of New Jersey and a regular contributor to NOW, Christine Todd Whitman.

BRANCACCIO: Governor Whitman, good to see you.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Good to see you again, David.

BRANCACCIO: All right, so one indictment, Vice-President Dick Cheney's sidekick, Lewis Libby. Now, is this all going to blow over for the White House?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: No, they sincerely wish it would. But it's not. This is going to go on for a while.

And that's the worst thing that could happen for the White House. They're going to want this over with as quickly as possible to be able to refocus America's attention on other issues. But it's going to be there for a while. And they've got their other problems on the Hill with the Harriet Miers nomination. You've got problems with leadership on the Hill that are being-- alleged. And it's-- it's just not a very good time for them right now.

BRANCACCIO: All sorts of shenanigans and allegations. But I'll tell you what-- former House Majority Leader Tom Delay wrote a letter yesterday to supporters. And he said it's all linked, the allegations of financial impropriety involving Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and the Fitzgerald investigation. His quote to his constituents, "We are witnessing the criminalization of conservative politics." What do you make of that?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I would respectfully disagree. I think we're looking at when you do something illegal you get caught. And this is what's happened with Scooter Libby, at least, the allegation.

There's enough there that the prosecutor feels that he can make a case and from all that we've seen in the notes that-- that Scooter Libby took that tell one thing whereas his-- testimony at the grand jury was something different which is kind of mind-boggling in the first place. That tells you that there's something real here. And that's about illegal activity.

We've heard before about the vast right wing conspiracy. We had that during the Clinton years. Now, we have the vast left wing conspiracy. Neither one of those extremes, I believe, reflect what's really going on. And that gets more to where, I think, the country-- I think the American people are getting very, very fed up with this. And they're saying, "All right already, let's stop this extremism on both sides." We need to get back to a center where we can talk to one another. We can agree to disagree but do it civilly. And we can start to move policy forward.

BRANCACCIO: But here's the thing. The Harriet Miers nomination didn't even get into the Senate Judiciary Committee. And many see that as a great victory President Bush's far right wing. It's a victory for the right wing, not your moderates.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: No, it was a victory for the right wing and no question about it. But at what price? They have humiliated their President. They've certainly damaged him.

Humiliation's probably too strong a word. But they've clearly damaged him. This is what-- isn't what he wanted. They are showing their strength but in a way-- you know, they objected to Harriet Miers. And they were very clear in the beginning as to why. At the end they were saying it was qualifications.

But clearly it was because she wouldn't give them assurances that no matter what the facts of the case brought before her as she sat as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court she was always going to decide one way. And the far left wanted her to say exactly the opposite to them.

That's not what you want in a justice. You don't want someone with an ideology that will determine their decisions. You want someone-- you clearly expect to have someone with a philosophy that will inform their decisions.

BRANCACCIO: So, you're persuaded we're going to get that now?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I certainly hope so. It's going to be a real test for the President to see whether in fact he feels that he has to keep his conservative base in the Congress with him no matter what and he's really afraid that they'll walk from him on these other things if he doesn't come forward with a very conservative nomination the next go around. The problem there is that you've got the Democrats and the moderate Republicans, if the person is too far out there, who are going to say no.

And we're going to have another stalemate. And that's what the American people, I believe, are getting more and more fed up with. They're saying, "We've got to move things forward." They applauded really, those 14 Senators, seven Democrats, seven Republicans that came together over the summer to stop the nuclear option-- on judicial nominations.

BRANCACCIO: How damaged is the President's political power at this juncture?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Well, clearly he's hurting. He can certainly get beyond it. But it's going to take a lot. And one of the things that I believe that they're going to want to have is to get this case over with as quickly as possible. I do not believe that they want to see Scooter Libby go to trial. I think they'd rather have it plead out. Then it remains to be seen what happens with Karl Rove, whether there are another set of indictments that come down. To say that this isn't distracting is being naive.

BRANCACCIO: You've sat across the-- presumably the cabinet table from the President of the United States. You know him. What advice would you give him going forward?

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: My advice to him would be to follow his gut. He's got very good gut instincts if he will just listen to them. He's got a lot of people trying to tell him what to do and a lot of people who thinking this out in ways that are just get too convoluted.

I mean, I can't imagine a thought process that said to Scooter Libby, "Go ahead and say to the grand jury that you heard about Valerie Plame first from the press when you have your own notes that you know are being turned over under discovery that show that you heard it from the Vice-President." I don't understand the thinking the went into that. It's going to be very interesting to see how they handle this and what the Vice-President does. Because this is his right hand person. And clearly he didn't act without-- the Vice-President being very involved in whatever he did.

BRANCACCIO: All right, well Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican Governor of New Jersey, thank you.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: Pleasure.


BRANCACCIO: Next week PBS turns its attention to global health with a six-part documentary. RX FOR SURVIVAL: A GLOBAL HEALTH CHALLENGE airs over three nights beginning next Tuesday.

Check local listings for times. And next week on NOW we ask a former president for a report card on how America is doing when it comes to global health.

JIMMY CARTER: It's very difficult for the American people to believe that our government, one of the richest on earth, is also one of the stingiest on earth."

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.



BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

Read more about how the media has covered the White House

See what White House officials have said about the CIA leak

Hear more from Christine Todd Whitman

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.



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