Saturday, July 16, 2005

THE SMELL TEST Consider, for a moment, the tactics used by the GOP propaganda machine over the last several days.

The slime operation began on Monday: Joe Wilson was smeared, environmental factors were blamed, and amazingly, Karl Rove was held up as some kind of hero for his role in outing Valerie Plame:

Democrats and most of the Beltway press corps are baying for Karl Rove's head over his role in exposing a case of CIA nepotism involving Joe Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame. On the contrary, we'd say the White House political guru deserves a prize.
But in the face of this full court press, interest in the story continued to build. So late Thursday, a strange thing happened. The Republican talking points were shelved.

A new line emerged: Rove hadn't (heroically) exposed Plame after all. In fact he had nothing to do with her outing. Instead, he'd learned about her from an unnamed media source--one whose identity he's since forgotten. Only after this initial heads-up did he learn Plame's name--in a conversation with columnist Robert Novak.

That this storyline contradicted earlier pronouncements was unimportant. That it failed to exculpate Rove for his role in spreading classified information was beside the point. The key thing was that it cast Rove in the role of inadvertent accomplice rather than evil mastermind--a shift that would be sure to turn down the heat on the story.

(That the New York Times was willing to swallow this spin and serve it up as an A1 scoop--sourced only to a single "person [who] discussed the matter in the belief that Mr. Rove was truthful" was, I suppose, chalked up by the Bushies to old fashioned good luck.)

Not surprisingly, the new narrative is seen as improving Rove's position. First, it squares with what is known publicly without directly contradicting the most important claims of the story's other key players.

At the same time, it sets Rove up as having acted more or less ethically every step of the way: He received the information from reporters rather than doling it out to them; he learned Plame's name from Novak rather than vice versa; he remembers having spoken with reporters who've testified before the grand jury, but not the one supposed to have disclosed Plame's identity to him in the first place.

Convenient as this story is, though, it raises as many questions as it answers:

1. Central to the new GOP explanation is that when Novak mentioned Mrs. Wilson's CIA identity to Rove, Rove responded, "I heard that, too." This seems to be a shorthand for the stipulation that Rove was merely gossiping with Novak, rather than helping the columnist nail down the story.

But in his original column, Novak reported:

Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report.
And even The Times' Rove-friendly source concedes that Rove was one of these two sources.

Now, granted, Novak is hack. But even for him, would, "I heard that too," have been enough of a basis upon which to have written the above sentence? Did Rove--at a minimum--affirmatively confirm the story or didn't he?

In short, did Novak exaggerate his sourcing back in 2003 or is Rove lying now?

2. Assume, as seems likely, that Novak isn't lying and that Rove did confirm the truth of the revelations about Plame.

Would Rove have been sloppy and thoughtless enough to confirm Novak's story based on a single comment passed along by some not-particularly-memorable reporter? Or is it more likely he would've held out for evidence of the story's truth before commenting? Without that evidence, wouldn't he be afraid the scoop might turn out to be false and blow up in his face?

3.Finally, if Rove was nothing more than an inadvertent accomplice, why the lies? Why did he say:

I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name.
if he did know her name--but only from journalists?

Why not err on the side of caution and get out in front of the story back in 2003--or at least once exchanges like this start cropping up:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Don't you think it's more serious than Watergate, when you think about it?

RNC CHAIRMAN ED GILLESPIE: I think if the allegation is true, to reveal the identity of an undercover CIA operative -- it's abhorrent, and it should be a crime, and it is a crime.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: It'd be worse than Watergate, wouldn't it?

GILLESPIE: It's -- Yeah, I suppose in terms of the real world implications of it. It's not just politics.
Would Rove really hunker down for two years and put Scott McClellan through a week of hell, backing himself and the White House into a corner if, all along, his actions had a relatively innocent explanation?

Does that pass the smell test?

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.