Probe of CIA leak likely to raise questions of what Bush knew, and when

Democrats may act to cast doubt on his credibility

July 24, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - His former secretary of state, most of his closest aides and a parade of other senior officials have testified to a grand jury. His political strategist has emerged as a central figure in the case, as has his vice president's chief of staff. His spokesman has taken a pounding for making statements about the matter that now appear not to be accurate.

For all that, it is still not clear what the investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity will mean for President Bush. The disclosures about the involvement of Karl Rove, among others, have not exacted any substantial political price from the administration. And nobody has suggested that the investigation directly implicates the president. Yet Bush has yet to address some uncomfortable questions that he might not be able to evade indefinitely.

For starters, did Bush know in the fall of 2003, when he was telling the public that no one wanted to get to the bottom of the case more than he did, that Rove, his longtime strategist, senior adviser and alter ego, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, had touched on the CIA officer's identity in conversations with journalists before the officer's name became public? If not, when did they tell him, and what would the delay say in particular about his relationship with Rove, whose career and Bush's have been intertwined for decades?

Then there is the broader issue of whether Bush was aware of any effort by his aides to use the CIA officer's identity to undermine the standing of her husband, a former diplomat who had publicly accused the administration of twisting its prewar intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program.

For the past several weeks, Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, have declined to address the leak in any substantive way, citing the continuing federal criminal investigation.

But Democrats increasingly see an opportunity to raise questions about Bush's credibility, and to reopen a debate about whether the White House leveled with the nation about the urgency of going to war with Iraq. Even some Republicans say Bush cannot assume that he will escape from the investigation politically unscathed.

"Until all the facts come out, no one is really going to know who the fickle finger of fate points at," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.

The case centers on how the name of a CIA operative came to appear two years ago in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak, who identified her by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. The operative, who is usually known as Valerie Wilson, is married to Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who had publicly accused the administration eight days before Novak's column of twisting some of the intelligence used to justify going to war with Iraq. Under some conditions, the disclosure of a covert intelligence agent's name can be a federal crime.

The special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has kept a tight curtain of secrecy around his investigation. But he spent more than an hour in the Oval Office on June 24, 2004, interviewing Bush about the case. Bush was not under oath, but he had his lawyer for the case, James E. Sharp, with him.

Neither the White House nor the Justice Department has said what Bush was asked about, but prosecutors do not lightly seek to put questions directly to any president, suggesting that there was some information that Fitzgerald felt he could get only from Bush.

Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, said the lesson of recent history, for example in the Iran-contra case under President Ronald Reagan, is that presidents tend to know more than it might first appear about what is going on within the White House.

"My presumption in presidential politics is that the president always knows," Lichtman said. "But there are degrees of knowing. Reagan said keep the contras together body and soul. Did he know exactly what Oliver North was doing? No, it doesn't mean he knew what every subordinate is doing."

Although it is possible that other officials will turn out to have played leading roles in the leak case, the subordinates whose actions would appear to be of most interest to Bush now are Rove and Libby, who as Cheney's chief of staff had a particular interest in protecting the vice president's interests.

According to accounts by various people involved in the case, Rove spoke in the days after Wilson went public with his criticism in July 2003 to both of the first two reporters to disclose that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, Novak and Matthew Cooper of Time. Cooper has said he also spoke about the case with Libby.

By September 2003, as a criminal investigation was getting under way, McClellan was telling reporters that Rove had nothing to do with the leak, saying he had checked with Rove about the topic.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.