There is a lot that we still don’t know about the case of Valerie Plame, so it would be premature to proclaim that Karl Rove has either been vindicated or discredited. Definitive judgments are going to have to wait for more information. What we know so far is far from damning.
You may recall the background of this story. In the summer of 2003, Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times stating that his official fact-finding trip to Niger had uncovered no evidence that Saddam Hussein had acquired uranium from that country. This datum was thought to be relevant to the controversy then swirling over whether the president had dissembled in that year’s State of the Union address about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. When Robert Novak reported that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was “[a CIA] operative on weapons of mass destruction” who had played a role in sending Wilson to Niger, the Bush administration’s foes charged that the White House had outed her as a covert operative as a way to punish Wilson for causing it trouble.
In recent days, we have learned that in the days before Novak’s column appeared, Karl Rove told Matthew Cooper of Time that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA.
But the statute that criminalizes the disclosure of covert operatives’ identities names is narrowly worded. For Rove to have committed a crime, he would have to have known that Plame worked undercover and that the CIA was taking active steps to conceal her identity. (In truth, the CIA seemed to be taking more active steps to undermine Bush’s Iraq policy than to conceal Plame’s identity.) As yet, we have no reason to think that he did.
The context of Rove’s conversation, as relayed in an e-mail from Cooper to colleagues, also tends to undercut the theory that he was trying to punish Wilson. Rove told Cooper not to believe everything Wilson said. (The wisdom of that warning has been amply documented over the last two years.) Wilson had made it sound as though the vice president’s office had asked for him to make his trip. (See, for instance, Nicholas Kristof’s May 6, 2003, column in the New York Times.) Rove appears to have brought up the fact that Wilson’s wife had suggested him in order to minimize the White House’s role in his trip. That context does not affect his legal position, but it does tell against the claim that Rove was trying to punish Wilson.
“We doubt that there will be firing offenses here, still less indictable ones.”
This may turn out to be a case of errors of judgment, not of malice. Rove may have played a role in the disclosure of a covert operative’s name (although right now we do not even know that). Even if that disclosure ultimately had no great effect on national security and even if it was inadvertent, a White House official should know better. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, meanwhile, has made misleading statements about Rove’s involvement in this case. We do not know whether those statements were deliberately misleading or uninformed.
We also do not know the identity of Novak’s source–or that of the source of Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who is in prison for refusing to reveal it.
Rove’s lawyer told York that the prosecutor in the Plame case has said that Rove is not a target of his but asked Rove not to comment on the investigation. At the appropriate time, Rove and McClellan may owe some apologies. But we doubt that there will be firing offenses here, still less indictable ones. Democrats searching for a way to best the man who has done more than anyone but President Bush to win the last three elections, and reporters on the hunt for a big second-term scandal, will have to look elsewhere.