Remember the Memo
Michael Tomasky – 2005-10-03
Remember the Memo By Michael Tomasky The Prospect October 3, 2005
As the noose tightens at the White House, the State Department memo may be the key piece of Plame evidence. Think it’s fair to say that the combination Sunday of the Walter Pincus-Jim VandeHei piece in The Washington Post and George Stephanopoulos’ bombshell on television’s This Week felt like a tug on the noose around the White House’s neck?
The Post article noted that Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor looking into the Valerie Plame investigation, could bring conspiracy indictments against Karl Rove and Scooter Libby – even if he fails to pin down evidence that they violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
Stephanopoulos did them one better: He said to George Will on This Week that a source told him that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney “were actually involved in some of the discussions” about how the White House should deal with Joe Wilson and Plame, his wife.
OK, before we go any further, let’s pinch ourselves: I still think it will be awfully difficult for Fitzgerald to bring indictments against high-level officials. Bureaucratic layering is such that high officials typically have five or six degrees of separation from controversial actions, so that they can say “my hands were clean” and some underling the media have never heard of can take the fall.
It’s kind of like in The Constant Gardner: The pharmaceutical company doesn’t need to order an actual hit; it merely has to let out word that so-and-so is a problem, and by the time the word gets to the sixth sociopath down the line, the comment is understood to mean murder. But no executive ever said, or perhaps even ever intended, any such thing.
So for now we still need to assume that, whatever happened, neither Rove nor Libby nor anyone else in the Bush White House intended for Plame’s name to get out there. And remember, we’re not exactly dealing with Murray Kempton on the journalistic end of this transaction (for those of you who don’t know, he’s the epitome of journalistic probity and rectitude). Bob Novak may have burned a source or made a more innocent error. So Plame’s name might have appeared in print through some fault of his.
But the argument against all my buts is the memo.
You are probably familiar with the memo story, which The New York Times broke in mid-July. The Times published Joe Wilson’s op-ed on July 6, 2003. By the next day, as he was getting aboard Air Force One to travel with the president to Africa, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had the key memo in his hand.
The memo, prepared the previous month, was chiefly about the State Department’s skepticism that Saddam Hussein had obtained uranium from Niger. But one paragraph, marked “S” for secret, included Plame’s name, although it did not specifically identify her as a covert operative. (For the record, Rove’s attorney has maintained that Rove never saw the memo until Fitzgerald’s office showed it to him.)
To quote from a Washington Post piece by VandeHei and Mike Allen from July 16: “A key mystery in the leak case is how senior administration officials first learned of Plame’s identity and her relationship to a key critic of President Bush’s Iraq policy, before her name appeared in news reports.” One of Fitzgerald’s earliest moves was to subpoena phone records from that Air Force One trip.
Bush, of course, was on that plane. It hardly stretches credulity to think that Powell showed his boss the memo – if not because of the Plame mention then because the memo stated his department’s view that Wilson’s trip had been unnecessary to begin with because the State Department’s internal probe had already shown that the Iraq-Niger connection was a fabrication.
And this, I suspect, is where Stephanopoulos’ source circles back in to the story. If Bush saw that memo seven days before Novak’s story appeared, might Bush himself have been involved in discussions about Wilson and Plame?
Again, there’s usually insulation built in between higher-ups, especially the president, and any decision or action that might remotely be considered controversial. And, again, I still think the likelihood of high-level prosecutions is less than 50 percent. But if those prosecutions come, the State Department memo will likely be a key document.
And the more important point is this: We’ll learn that the normal layers of insulation were ignored because the administration, and perhaps the president himself, felt it could get away with ignoring them. Certainly it had no reason at that point to think that the media, which helped it make their phony case for war, would get nosy. It’s equally obvious that it had no reason to fear the feeble Democrats. The one thing the administration didn’t count on was an honest prosecutor who cared more about evidence and the law than about partisanship. That, for this White House, was an inconceivable circumstance.