`Frog-march' time for Rove?

July 19, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Now we know why it is called "spin." Your head could spin from all of the information and disinformation swirling around disclosures that Karl Rove leaked the identity of a CIA agent to at least one reporter.

As I boil it all down, there are three big questions:

1. Did Mr. Rove commit a crime?

2. Criminal or not, did he do anything morally or ethically wrong?

3. Who lied about it?

Background: In July 2003, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV wrote a New York Times op-ed that embarrassed the White House into a big concession: Assertions about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Niger should not have been included in President Bush's State of the Union address. Mr. Wilson knew because he had been sent to Niger to investigate the allegation.

A week after his op-ed appeared, columnist Robert Novak identified Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, by name as the "CIA operative" behind Mr. Wilson's mission.

A week after that, MSNBC's Chris Matthews quoted Mr. Rove as saying, "Wilson's wife is fair game."

The next month, Mr. Wilson commented sarcastically that he would not mind seeing "Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

Mr. Rove's idea apparently was to distance the Bush White House from Mr. Wilson's Niger mission. In fact, Ms. Plame was not just any operative but an agent, which means the leak of her identity by a government official could violate federal law, besides jeopardizing her job and life.

Did Mr. Rove commit a crime?

Hardly anyone but a partisan for one side or the other would even try to answer that question with a straight "yes" or "no."

The real answer will come clear when Patrick Fitzgerald, the tough special prosecutor named by the Justice Department, returns some indictments or, at least, a final report. Mr. Fitzgerald would have to show that Mr. Rove knowingly revealed Ms. Plame's identity as a CIA agent, breaking the law and possibly endangering her life.

But is "Bush's brain" about to be fired, as leading Democrats have demanded? Not likely, unless he is convicted. Indictment would bring a leave of absence.

If anyone will squeeze every bit of evidence out of this investigation, it is Mr. Fitzgerald. He urged jail time, not house arrest, for Times reporter Judith Miller after she refused to say who revealed Ms. Plame's identity to her for a story Ms. Miller never wrote.

Did Mr. Rove do anything morally or ethically wrong?

Morals? Ethics? Hardball political operatives say, "Ha." In their world, the meaning of such words is as slippery as the greasy ground beneath their feet. After all, "Wilson's wife is fair game."

Who's lying?

President Bush has wisely clammed up, saying it wouldn't be proper to comment on an ongoing investigation. But more than once in October 2003, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, called any involvement by Mr. Rove in the leak "a ridiculous suggestion." After speaking with Mr. Rove and other individuals under suspicion in the White House, Mr. McClellan said, "Those individuals assured me they were not involved in this."

After Mr. Rove's lawyer confirmed his leak to Time magazine, Mr. McClellan clammed up, except to come up with endless variations on "no comment."

The real Rove scandal might be this administration's willful pattern of shutting up any dissenting voices like Mr. Wilson's and shutting out any disagreeable facts like the ones Mr. Wilson presented to the CIA.

That's not an indictable offense, but it's worth investigating. It's worth looking back at how our country got into Iraq, now that we're trying to find a way out.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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