PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Here's a quick summary of the question that consumed much of political Washington this week: Can President Bush's close friend and adviser, Karl Rove, survive accusations he took part in leaking the identity of a CIA agent? The answer is probably yes, but not before Democrats take full advantage of the chance to bloody him.
The news this week was that Rove had been a source for a report that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson -- a critic of the Bush policy in Iraq -- had been given a CIA consulting job because his wife recommended him, and she worked for the agency. Rove's lawyer says Rove disclosed only that fact, not her actual name, and thus did not break the law. Democrats said that the news contradicted earlier statements by Rove and by the White House spokesman that Rove was not involved, and they said the president should fire Rove whether or not he committed a crime.
With me to discuss all this are: Dorothy Rabinowitz, a columnist and member of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial board; Kim Strassel, a senior writer for the editorial page; and James Taranto of OpinionJournal.com, who has been following the Rove story especially closely.
James, let's deal with the facts in the law here first. What kind of legal jeopardy is Karl Rove in, based on what we know now?
JAMES TARANTO: On a scale of one to 10, Paul, I would say roughly a zero. Look, the allegation is that Rove violated something called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This is a 1982 law that's meant to shield the identities of covert CIA agents. In order to be a covert CIA agent under this law, you have to be stationed overseas or to have been stationed overseas sometime in the past five years. Joe Wilson in his book acknowledges that his wife's last overseas assignment was in 1997, six years before this so-called leak took place. There's no crime here.
PAUL GIGOT: It also is true that you must have disclosed the CIA agent's identity maliciously and as part of your normal official government function.
JAMES TARANTO: You have to have learned it through your government functions, and you have to have disclosed it knowing that the government was taking affirmative measures to conceal it. Now Robert Novack, who first reported this, said later that he had asked the CIA if it was okay to disclose this name. He said the CIA said we'd rather not, but made only -- and these are his words -- a very weak objection. So it doesn't sound like the government was taking affirmative measures.
PAUL GIGOT: Of course, we do have that independent counsel, the Special Counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed a couple of years ago, looking into this. Do we know what it is precisely he's looking at? Could he be looking at anything more than whether that law was violated? Something like perjury or lying under oath?
JAMES TARANTO: Well, as Martha Stewart can attest, sometimes just being involved in a criminal investigation can get you into trouble if you do the wrong thing. So yes, there may be conceivably indictments based on something that arose out of the investigation, even if there is no underlying crime.
PAUL GIGOT: So, Dorothy, politics going on here?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Politics. Well, it is hilarious to anybody who remembers. And it's not a chuckle, it's now important. The CIA has been the object of slander and assault by various quarters of the left for as long as anybody can remember. It's been held responsible, along with all of our other intelligence operations, for floods, famine, fire, assassination, the subject of endless movies. And now, yesterday, moveon.org held demonstrations in which people were holding up signs saying "Protect our Intelligence Agencies." They are the most important agencies, the CIA. Am I dreaming?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, Chuck Schumer, the senator from New York who appeared with Joseph Wilson in a press conference this week to attack the White House and to say that Karl Rove should have his security clearance pulled, actually voted against that 1982 Intelligence Act. So there is a suggestion that maybe there is a little politics going on here.
What about Joseph Wilson's role here? This all started, Kim, back in 2003 with an Op-Ed piece in THE NEW YORK TIMES by Joseph Wilson saying that he had gone to Niger to look into charges that somehow Saddam Hussein had been seeking yellow cake uranium from that country. He found nothing, he said, and this proved that Bush was lying about the War.
KIM STRASSEL: Right, this has to be put into that perspective, because this is how it actually all started. Joseph Wilson writes this Op-Ed piece. No one asked him to do it. Here he comes out. He blasts the president. We have since found out he's a very big partisan. He doesn't like the administration.
PAUL GIGOT: Join the Kerry campaign.
KIM STRASSEL: Join the Kerry campaign, exactly. And so when you're looking at what Rove or anyone else said, it was in this sort of context, because he was out there -- in writing this Op-Ed he put himself up as fair game for people to look into, he put his claims up as fair game, and indeed the Senate Intelligence Committee later came out and said that he was not correct in his assessments of what he'd actually found in Niger.
But when we're talking about what Rove and everyone else did, they were basically saying to the press, look, if you're going to just take this guy at face value, you might want to look at some of the things behind him that are driving what he's actually saying in the press.
PAUL GIGOT: James, this was done in the middle of an election campaign, when we were in the hothouse political season. And clearly Wilson's motive was to damage Bush's credibility on the war.
JAMES TARANTO: Well, that's right. And Wilson denied that his wife had had anything to do with his getting this Niger gig. The Senate Intelligence Committee also refuted that, and found that in fact she had recommended him.
The Kerry campaign had brought Wilson on as a foreign policy adviser, and had really touted him as an adviser. They set up a special web site called -- I love this -- restorehonesty.com. After Wilson was discredited by the Senate Intelligence Committee, that web site went down. It just redirected to the Kerry campaign's main page. Every reference to Wilson and Plame disappeared from the Kerry web site. He became a non-person in the Kerry campaign, very quietly. And by the way, if the White House thought Karl Rove was guilty, something similar would happen to him. They wouldn't be confidently standing by him the way they are.
PAUL GIGOT: But let's deal with this Democratic charge about the White House credibility, because Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, did say in the past that Karl Rove had not been involved. That's the word he used. And Karl Rove's words in the past were, "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name." Which, from what we know now, is technically true but nonetheless gave the implication that somehow he had no role at all to play in this.
Is this a case, James, where the White House handling of this issue is actually going to do more damage to the White House in the long run than the underlying problem or offence?
JAMES TARANTO: Well, inasmuch as there is no underlying problem and offense, of course it is. I mean, yeah, the White House has fumbled in a few places along the way, including -- I think one could make a pretty good argument that appointing a special counsel was a mistake, although there was a lot of political pressure to do so at the time.
KIM STRASSEL: And that was actually the big issue. In doing so, they fundamentally suggested that there was a big crime here. And it's given the fuel for the fire.
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, Dorothy?
DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Oh yes, well, I think that there are some instances -- and this is one of them -- where you cannot but go wrong. Here we have the big sound byte of the day all over the airways. President Bush said this. If anybody in my administration leaks, I want to know about it. What else could you say? This is the most ordinary statement any administration could make. In the current atmosphere, so inflamed towards hysteria, you could hardly say he went wrong. But it's usable stuff for the opposition.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, and it still would be very damaging for the president and the White House, would it not, if Karl Rove were somehow forced to resign? Because he's such a central player in this administration, James.
JAMES TARANTO: Sure. He's very important. Of course, Dick Morris was forced to resign after his scandal in 1996, and he still stayed around and helped the Clinton White House. It would obviously be a disaster for the administration if Rove were indicted. But again, I think the chances of that are very close to zero.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I agree with that. We're going to have to end it right there. Thank you all very much.