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What's Rove Got to Do With It?

By Robert Parry
July 13, 2006

Right-wing columnist Robert D. Novak’s confirmation that White House political adviser Karl Rove was one of his sources for identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA officer leaves unresolved two other troubling questions – who passed this sensitive information to Rove and why was Rove cut in on such a discrete intelligence secret.

A key national security principle for dealing with narrow life-or-death secrets, such as the identity of an undercover CIA officer, is compartmentalization. It’s not just whether officials have the appropriate level of security clearance; they also must have a “need to know.”

The fact that political guru Rove was a source on Plame’s identity for at least two reporters – columnist Novak and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper – suggests that George W. Bush’s White House had put political damage control ahead of national security.

In July 2003, Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized Bush for “twisting” intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Striking back, the White House sought to discredit Wilson by claiming that Wilson had taken a fact-finding trip to Africa partly arranged by his wife.

When that claim and Plame’s identity were published in a Novak column also in July 2003, her career as an undercover CIA officer tracking weapons of mass destruction was destroyed. Those events eventually led to the appointment of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who reportedly has decided not to indict Rove over the leak.

Protected Secrets

Still, there’s the underlying issue of how the White House decides which secrets must be protected and which ones can be bandied about to discredit critics. Bush has angrily denounced press disclosures about controversial programs that involve spying on Americans or subjecting detainees to torture in secret prisons, but he has continued to defend and employ Rove despite his role in outing Plame.

Among intelligence professionals, the exposure of a clandestine CIA officer is considered possibly the worst kind of leak. It jeopardizes not only the personal safety and career of the undercover officer, but it puts at risk any foreign citizens who may have assisted the spying operation.

Plame also operated in a highly sensitive role under “non-official cover,” that is, a spy working outside the protection of a U.S. embassy. NOCs face extreme danger if caught spying in a hostile country.

Some of Bush’s defenders have argued that Plame’s assignment to CIA headquarters meant there was no need to maintain her secret cover. But that argument misses the point that many CIA employees who work out of CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, are still on covert status, as was Plame.

Also, the justification for Plame’s exposure – that she had played a minor role in her husband’s fact-finding trip to Niger to investigate suspicions that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium – represented a lame excuse. By July 2003, it was clear, too, that Wilson’s findings, casting doubt on the Niger suspicions, were correct.

Nevertheless, after Wilson wrote an Op-Ed article for the New York Times on July 6, 2003, criticizing Bush’s use of the Niger allegations despite the evidence to the contrary, the White House – led by Vice President Dick Cheney – conducted a smear campaign against Wilson.

In tearing down Wilson, the White House also exposed Plame. The leak of Plame’s identity and its publication by Novak on July 14, 2003, apparently was intended to undercut Wilson by suggesting his trip was a case of nepotism or that he was unmanly because his wife had a hand in arranging his unpaid assignment.

It’s also possible that the White House simply was punishing a critic by destroying his wife’s career. After disclosure of her identity, Plame’s CIA career was ruined and she resigned from the government. Her cover company, Brewster Jennings & Associates, also was exposed and her counter-proliferation mission wrecked.

Even to this day, Bush has done nothing to discourage his political supporters from denigrating Wilson, who gets routinely mocked in the right-wing news media as a flaky self-promoter or a partisan Democrat.

Novak Speaks

In a new column – on July 12, 2006 – Novak broke three years of near-total silence on his role in the Plame case. Though Novak still refused to identify his initial source for the Plame information, he did reveal that his second source was Rove, “whom I interpret as confirming my primary source’s information.” [Washington Post, July 12, 2006]

A year ago, Newsweek reported that Time’s Cooper also had learned about Plame’s identity from Rove. According to an internal Time e-mail, Cooper informed his editor that Rove offered a “big warning” not to “get too far out on Wilson” and that “KR said” the Niger trip was authorized by “wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency (CIA) on wmd issues.” [Newsweek, July 18, 2005, issue]

Though the evidence is clear that Rove helped disseminate the news about Plame’s identity, prosecutor Fitzgerald declined to seek prosecutions under laws that protect the identities of CIA officers or national security secrets.

In October 2005, Fitzgerald did indict Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis Libby, who was another source for journalists about Plame, but the charges related to perjury, lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice, not the underlying offense of exposing a CIA officer. Libby has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial in 2007.

In not indicting Rove, Fitzgerald apparently judged that Rove’s testimony – while not entirely accurate – didn’t rise to the level of perjury.

But there remains that troubling question: Why did Bush bring political operative Rove into the compartment on the secret identity of a CIA officer?

The fact that political adviser Rove was one of the busy bees cross-pollinating this sensitive information to the Washington press corps is evidence that Bush indeed did put politics and his image ahead of protecting legitimate national security secrets.

Rove had no reason to know who Plame was, except as part of a public relations attack against her husband and as political damage control for Bush. Rove’s only real need to know would appear to be for an assignment to punish a messenger for delivering some unwanted news.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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