Justice Department officials made the crucial decision in late 2003 to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in large part because investigators had begun to specifically question the veracity of accounts provided to them by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, according to senior law enforcement officials.
Several of the federal investigators were also deeply concerned that then attorney general John Ashcroft was personally briefed regarding the details of at least one FBI interview with Rove, despite Ashcroft’s own longstanding personal and political ties to Rove, the Voice has also learned. The same sources said Ashcroft was also told that investigators firmly believed that Rove had withheld important information from them during that FBI interview.
Those concerns by senior career law enforcement officials regarding the propriety of such briefings continuing, as Rove became more central to the investigation, also was instrumental in the naming of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
Up until that point, the investigation had been conducted by a team of career prosecutors and FBI agents, some of whom believed Ashcroft should recuse himself. Democrats on Capitol Hill were calling for him to step down, but he did not. Then on December 30, 2003, Ashcroft unexpectedly recused himself from further overseeing the matter, and James B. Comey, then deputy attorney general, named Patrick J. Fitzgerald as the special prosecutor who would take over the case.
The Justice Department declined to publicly offer any explanation at the time for either the recusal or the naming of a special prosecutor—an appointment that would ultimately place in potential legal jeopardy senior advisers to the president of the United States, and lead to the jailing of a New York Times reporter.
During his initial interview with the FBI, in the fall of 2003, Rove did not disclose that he had ever discussed Plame with Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper, according to two legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the matter. Federal investigators were also skeptical of claims by Rove that he had only first learned of Plame’s employment with the CIA from a journalist, even though he also claimed he could not specifically recall the name of the journalist.
As the truthfulness of Rove’s accounts became more of a focus of investigators, career Justice Department employees and senior FBI officials became even more concerned about the continuing role in the investigation of Ashcroft, because of his close relationship with Rove. Rove had earlier served as an adviser to Ashcroft during the course of three political campaigns. And Rove’s onetime political consulting firm had been paid more than $746,000 for those services.
In response to these new allegations, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the current ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and former chairman of the committee as well, said in a statement: “There has long been the appearance of impropriety in Ashcroft’s handling of this investigation. The former attorney general had well documented conflicts of interest in this matter, particularly with regard to his personal relationship with Karl Rove. Among other things, Rove was employed by Ashcroft throughout his political career, and Rove reportedly had fiercely advocated for Ashcroft’s appointment as attorney general. Pursuant to standard rules of legal ethics, and explicit rules on conflict of interest, those facts alone should have dictated his immediate recusal.
“The new information, that Ashcroft had not only refused to recuse himself over a period of months, but also was insisting on being personally briefed about a matter implicating his friend, Karl Rove, represents a stunning ethical breach that cries out for an immediate investigation by the Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined on Friday to say what action, if any, might be taken in response to Conyers’ request.
Also of concern to investigators when they sought Ashcroft’s recusal, according to law enforcement sources, was that a number among Ashcroft’s inner circle had partisan backgrounds that included working closely with Rove. Foremost among them was David Isrealite, who served as Ashcroft’s deputy chief of staff. Another, Barbara Comstock, who was the Justice Department’s director of public affairs during much of Ashcroft’s tenure, had previously worked for the Republican National Committee, where she was in charge of the party’s “opposition research” operations.
“It would have been a nightmare scenario if Ashcroft let something slip to an aide or someone else they had in common with Rove . . . and then word got back to Rove or the White House what investigators were saying about him,” says a former senior Justice Department official, familiar with the matter.
Although not reported at the time, when Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame investigation, Deputy Attorney General Comey said in a statement that the A.G.’s personal staff was also being fully recused in the matter.
Indeed, the appointment of Fitzgerald as special prosecutor and the recusal of Ashcroft came just three weeks after Comey, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was named to be deputy attorney general. Comey himself was no stranger to the issue—even before he took office.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Comey had pledged that he would personally see to it that the independence and integrity of the investigation would not be compromised in any way.
At one point during those hearings, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited the close relationships between Ashcroft and Rove, and also between Ashcroft and others also likely to be questioned during the leak probe. Schumer asked Comey:
“How could there not be an appearance of a conflict given the close nexus of relationships?”
“I agree with you that it’s an extremely important matter,” Comey replied.
Within days of his taking office, several career Justice Department prosecutors took their own longstanding concerns to Comey, telling him that perhaps it would be best for Ashcroft to recuse himself, the same legal sources said. A smaller number also advocated the appointment of an outside prosecutor to take over the matter completely.
The combination of Ashcroft’s close relationship with Rove, the omission of critical information from the FBI by Rove during his initial interview with agents, that Ashcroft had been briefed about that interview in particular, and the-then recent appointment of Comey, all allowed for a forceful case being made by career Justice Department employees be made that the attorney general should step aside and a special prosecutor be named.
But says one government official familiar with the process: “When Ashcroft was briefed on Rove, that ended the argument. He was going to be removed. And there was going to be a special prosecutor named.”
The new disclosures as to why Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame case and why a special prosecutor was named are important for a number of reasons:
First, they show that from the very earliest days of the criminal probe, federal investigators had a strong belief and body of evidence that Rove and perhaps other officials might be misleading them.
Second, the new information underscores that career Justice Department staffers had concerns that the continued role of Ashcroft and other political aides might tarnish the investigation.
Finally, the new information once again highlights the importance of the testimony of journalists in uncovering whether anyone might have broken the law by disclosing classified information regarding Plame. That is because both Rove and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney—who are at the center of the Plame investigation—have said that they did not learn of Plame’s employment with the CIA from classified government information, but rather journalists; without the testimony of journalists, prosecutors have been unable to get to the bottom of the matter.
Several journalists have testified to Fitzgerald’s grand jury, but New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, who has refused to identify her confidential sources, was ordered to jail by Federal District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan on July 6, where she remains.
The initial criminal investigation began well before the case was turned over to Fitzgerald in December 2003. It started shortly after conservative columnist Robert Novak first identified Plame as an undercover CIA officer, in a July 14, 2003, column.
The column was written during a time when senior White House officials were attempting to discredit Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was then asserting that the Bush administration had relied on faulty intelligence to bolster its case to go to war with Iraq. Wilson had only recently led a CIA-sponsored mission to the African nation of Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was covertly attempting to buy enriched uranium from the African nation to build a nuclear weapon.
Wilson reported back to the CIA that the allegations were most likely the result of a hoax.
When Wilson sought out White House officials, believing they did not know all the facts, he was rebuffed. He then went public with his criticism of the Bush administration. It was then that senior administration officials began their campaign to discredit Wilson as a means of countering his criticisms of them.
Rove and Libby, and to a lesser extent then deputy National Security Council (NSC) adviser Stephen J. Hadley (who is currently Bush’s NSC adviser), directed these efforts. Both Rove and Libby discussed with Novak, Cooper, and other journalists the fact that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, and that she was responsible for sending him to Niger, in an effort to discredit him.
The manner by which Rove and Libby learned of Plame’s employment at the CIA before they shared that information with journalists is central to whether any federal criminal laws regarding classified information were violated. Rove and Libby have reportedly claimed they learned of the information from journalists. Rove in particular told FBI officials that he first learned of Plame’s employment with the CIA from a journalist, but drew their suspicions when he claimed that he could not recall the journalist’s name.
Plame’s employment with the CIA had been detailed in a highly classified State Department memorandum—circulated to senior Bush administration officials—in the days jut prior to conversations between Rove and Libby and journalists regarding Plame.
Dated June 10, 2003, the memo was written for Marc Grossman, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs. It mentioned Plame, her employment with the CIA, and her possible role in recommending her husband for the Niger mission because he had previously served in the region. The mention of Plame’s CIA employment was classified “Secret” and was contained in the second paragraph of the three-page classified paper.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson published his now famous New York Times op-ed and appeared on “Meet the Press.” The following day, on July 7, the memo was sent to then secretary of state Colin L. Powell and other senior Bush administration officials, who were scrambling to respond to the public criticism. At the time, Powell and other senior administration officials were on their way to Africa aboard Air Force One as members of the presidential entourage for a state visit to Africa.
Rove and Libby apparently were not on that trip, according to press accounts. But a subpoena during the earliest days of the Plame investigation demanded records related to any telephone phone calls to and from Air Force One from July 7 to July 12, during Bush’s African visit.
On July 8, Novak and Rove first spoke about Plame, according to numerous press accounts. That very same day, as the American Prospect recently disclosed, Libby and New York Times reporter Judith Miller also discussed Plame.
On July 9, then CIA director George Tenet ordered aides to draft a statement that the Niger information the president relied on “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for the presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed.” Rove and Libby were reportedly involved in the drafting of that statement’s language.
Two days later, on July 11, Rove spoke about Plame to Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper.
On the following day, July 12, an administration official— apparently not Rove or Libby—told Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that Wilson was sent to Niger on the recommendation of his wife, who worked at the CIA.
Two days after that, on July 14, Novak published his column disclosing Plame’s employment with the CIA, describing her as an “agency operative” and alleging that she suggested her husband for the Niger mission.
And on July 17, Time magazine posted its own story online, which said: “[S]ome government officials have noted to Time in interviews . . . that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband’s being dispatched to Niger.” Facing jail time for not disclosing his source, Cooper recently relented, and disclosed that Rove was one of his sources for that information.
But it was Rove’s omission during an initial interview, back in October 2003, with the FBI—that he had ever spoken with Cooper at all—coupled with the fact that Ashcroft was briefed about the interview, that largely precipitated the appointment of Fitzgerald as special prosecutor, according to senior law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.
Comey, then only recently named deputy attorney general, called a press conference and dramatically announced: “Effective today, the attorney general has recused himself . . . from further involvement in these matters.”
He also said he was naming Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who also serves as U.S. attorney in Chicago, as special prosecutor to take over the case. To further assure his independence, Comey also announced that he personally would serve as “acting Attorney General for purposes of this matter.”
Last week, however, Comey announced he was leaving the Justice Department to become the general counsel of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. In his absence, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum is the most likely choice to be named as the acting deputy attorney general, and thus the man overseeing Fitzgerald’s work. But McCallum has been a close personal friend of President Bush. Justice Department officials are once more grappling as to how to best assure independence for investigators. And Democrats on Capitol Hill are unlikely not to question any role in the leak probe by McCallum.
[Update: Since this article was originally posted, the Justice Department announced that David Margolis, an associate deputy general, would take the place of outgoing Deputy Attorney General James Comey in supervising Fitzgerald’s investigation.]
(Alberto Gonzalez, who succeeded Ashcroft as attorney general, had also—like Ashcroft—recused himself from the case. Gonzalez had overseen the response of White House officials to requests from investigators working the Plame case while he was White House counsel, and has also been a witness before Fitzgerald’s grand jury.)
In the meantime, Fitzgerald’s investigation appears to be in its final stages.
Nineteen months ago, when Comey appointed him as special prosecutor, reporters pressed Comey during the announcement as to what was behind his dramatic action. All that he would say at the time was: “If you were to speculate in print or in the media about particular people, I think that would be unfair to them.”
Then he added, almost as an afterthought: “We also don’t want people that we might be interested in to know we’re interested in them.”