Republicans dig in in defense of Rove

July 15, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Despite Democratic demands for the scalp of Karl Rove, often described - not entirely derogatorily - as "Bush's brain," the White House seems determined to ride out the storm over the revelation that he did talk to a Time reporter about outed CIA agent Valerie Plame.

In a deft effort to make this particular sow's ear into a silk purse, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, a Rove political offspring, has cast the president's chief political strategist not as a squealer but as a noble whistleblower trying to save the reporter from error.

From the RNC, Mr. Mehlman has circulated an editorial from the Bush administration's house organ, The Wall Street Journal, saying Mr. Rove "is turning out to be the real `whistleblower' in this whole sorry pseudo-scandal."

Ms. Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, earlier had assumed the whistleblower's role for himself in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. After visiting Niger in 2002 to check on a report that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium there, Mr. Wilson refuted the claim that would be used by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech to cast Iraq as a serious military threat.

In the political fallout, columnist Robert Novak reported that two administration sources had told him that Mr. Wilson's wife, whom Mr. Novak identified by name, had suggested her husband for the trip. Mr. Wilson responded by charging the disclosure was an administration act of retribution against him that violated federal law about outing a CIA agent.

The Wall Street Journal editorial said: "Media chants aside, there's no evidence that Mr. Rove broke any laws in telling reporters that Ms. Plame may have played a role in her husband's selection for a 2002 mission to investigate reports that Iraq was seeking uranium ore in Niger. ... It appears Mr. Rove didn't even know Ms. Plame's name and had only heard about her work at Langley [the CIA headquarters] from other journalists."

By warning Matthew Cooper, the Time reporter, "to be wary of [Mr. Wilson's] credibility," the editorial went on, "Mr. Rove provided important background so Americans can understand that Mr. Wilson wasn't a whistleblower but was a partisan trying to discredit the Iraq war in an election campaign." Mr. Wilson was a supporter of Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

Mr. Cooper, in an internal e-mail to Time obtained by rival newsmagazine Newsweek, specified that Mr. Rove had not referred to Mr. Wilson's wife by name. If so, the fact would complicate the Democrats' campaign to force Mr. Rove's resignation by charging he broke the law against outing a CIA operative.

But it won't deter the Democrats from demanding that he leave the White House staff.

However, Rove defenders can point to the president's statement in 2003, when the matter first surfaced, that "if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of. ... If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take appropriate action."

In other circumstances, the distinction of whether the agent was outed by name or just inference might be brushed aside by a president determined to cleanse his official family of a serious blemish.

But this president is so loyal to his staff, and particularly to this aide on whom he is so heavily dependent for counsel, that it would be very surprising if he did not seize the distinction to justify doing nothing.

More of the story must yet unfold to determine whether the federal prosecutor has enough to seek indictment and conviction of any of the players in the case, whether on grounds of leaking classified information or perjury before the grand jury hearing the matter.

But for the time being, the Bush administration and its single most important White House political operative are digging in, struggling to get off the defensive in another serious challenge to the president's credibility with a public that is telling pollsters its doubts about him, and his war, are mounting.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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