Karl Rove Sweating This Weekend!
- By Michael IsikoffNewsweekUpdated: 1 hour, 55 minutes ago
Jan. 26, 2007 - White House anxiety is mounting over the prospect that top officials¡ªincluding deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and counselor Dan Bartlett-may be forced to provide potentially awkward testimony in the perjury and obstruction trial of Lewis (Scooter) Libby.
Both Rove and Bartlett have already received trial subpoenas from Libby¡¯s defense lawyers, according to lawyers close to the case who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters. While that is no guarantee they will be called, the odds increased this week after Libby¡¯s lawyer, Ted Wells, laid out a defense resting on the idea that his client, Vice President Dick Cheney¡¯s former chief of staff, had been made a ¡°scapegoat¡± to protect Rove. Cheney is expected to provide the most crucial testimony to back up Wells¡¯s assertion, one of the lawyers close to the case said. The vice president personally penned an October 2003 note in which he wrote, ¡°Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the other.¡± The note, read aloud in court by Wells, implied that Libby was the one being sacrificed in an effort to clear Rove of any role in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joe Wilson. ¡°Wow, for all the talk about this being a White House that prides itself on loyalty and discipline, you¡¯re not seeing much of it,¡± the lawyer said.
Libby is charged with lying about when and from whom he learned about Plame during the spring and early summer of 2003, a time when the White House was working to discredit Wilson. A former U.S. ambassador, Wilson was dispatched to Niger to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium from Africa. Wilson said he told U.S. officials there was nothing to those reports. But the president later used the claim anyway in his 2003 State of the Union address, prompting Wilson to charge the administration had manipulated the intelligence about Iraq. The week after he went public, journalist Robert Novak first reported that Wilson¡¯s wife, Plame, worked for the CIA¡ªa disclosure that prompted allegations that administration officials had ¡°outed her¡± in retaliation for Wilson¡¯s criticism.
The possibility that Rove could be called to testify would bring his own role into sharper focus¡ªand could prove important to Libby¡¯s lawyers for several reasons. Rove has said in secret testimony that, during a chat on July 11, 2003, Libby told him he learned about Plame¡¯s employment at the CIA from NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, a legal source who asked not to be identified talking about grand jury matters told NEWSWEEK. If Rove repeats that story on the witness stand, it could back up Libby¡¯s core assertion that he honestly, if mistakenly, thought he had heard about Wilson¡¯s wife from the ¡°Meet the Press¡± host¡ªeven though Russert denies he knew anything about Plame, and more than a half-dozen officials (including Cheney) have said they passed along the same information to Libby earlier than that.
But the Rove account could cut in other ways. Fitzgerald would likely argue that Libby¡¯s comment to Rove merely shows that the vice president¡¯s top aide ¡°was even lying inside the White House,¡± according to the legal source. Moreover, Rove is likely not eager to recount the story either. The reason? He would have to acknowledge that shortly after he had the chat with Libby, he went back to his office and had a phone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper in which he also disclosed the fact that Wilson¡¯s wife worked for the CIA. The disclosure was potentially illegal since, at the time, Plame was employed in the Directorate of Operations, the agency¡¯s covert arm. (There is no evidence that Rove or anybody else knew Plame¡¯s status at the time¡ªand Rove has never been charged with any crime¡ªbut the possibility that White House officials were leaking classified information in an effort to discredit Wilson is what triggered the probe in the first place.)
An equally embarrassing conflict could emerge next week when former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer takes the stand. Fleischer has been one of the most mysterious figures in the case, making virtually no public comments about it since he left the White House in July 2003. In the past he has insisted he wasn¡¯t even represented by a lawyer. But it emerged during court arguments this week that Fleischer originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privileges to avoid testifying and then only agreed to do so after he was given an immunity deal by Fitzgerald¡ªan arrangement that normally requires extensive bargaining among attorneys. Fleischer¡¯s testimony is critical to Fitzgerald¡¯s case: as the prosecutor laid out this week in his opening statement, Fleischer has said that Libby told him over a White House lunch on July 7, 2003, that Wilson¡¯s wife worked at the CIA and made a point of describing this information as ¡°hush and hush.¡± Fitzgerald used that account to undercut Libby¡¯s grand-jury assertion that he was surprised and ¡°taken aback¡± just three or four days later when, he claims, Russert told him about Wilson¡¯s wife. ¡°You can¡¯t learn something startling on Thursday that you¡¯re giving out Monday and Tuesday of the same week,¡± Fitzgerald said. Fleischer has also testified that Bartlett also later told him about Wilson¡¯s wife and, after hearing it from both Libby and Bartlett, the then-White House press secretary disclosed the information to NBC reporter David Gregory.
On its face, Fleischer¡¯s account seems to contradict the repeated public assertions of his immediate successor, Scott McClellan, in October 2003 that nobody at the White House was in any way involved in the leak of Plame¡¯s identity. It also potentially puts Bartlett, one of the president¡¯s senior and most trusted advisers, on the hot seat. If Bartlett backs up Fleischer, it suggests he himself played a role in passing along radioactive information that triggered a criminal investigation that has plagued the White House for more than four years. If he contradicts Fleischer, it raises questions about the credibility of a man who was President Bush¡¯s chief spokesman for the first two and a half years of his presidency. His lawyer declined to comment on what Bartlett will say.
But either way, it¡¯s not a scenario that anybody at the White House can be looking forward to.