Bush press secretary Scott McClellan unleashed a new storm about the Valerie Plame investigation last week. McClellan’s publisher is about to release his new book, What Happened, and he picked what promised to be the juiciest morsel from the work to attract media attention. McClellan noted that he had “unknowingly passed along false information” that designed to throw investigators off the scent of the Preisdent’s senior political counselor, Karl Rove and Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby, who were subsequently revealed by the investigation to have been the leakers of the secret identity of a covert CIA agent. McClellan writes that “five of the highest ranking officials in the administration. . . Rove, Libby, Cheney, [Andrew] Card, and the president himself” had been involved in the conspiracy to out the CIA agent as a petty act of reprisal against her husband for authoring a New York Times op-ed which laid bare the intentional misstatements contained in the president’s State of the Union Address concerning a phony plot by Saddam to secure yellowcake uranium from Niger.
Imagine a president’s press secretary saying that his boss, the president, lied in connection with a criminal investigation. The news was sensational, but it was greeted by the mainstream media with a loud yawn. In the meantime, McClellan, who no doubt got a menacing phone call or two (wouldn’t you like to know the content of those calls?), scrambled to avert questions about the matter. McClellan’s publisher, Peter Osnos, ultimately reversed course, saying that McClellan didn’t believe Bush had asked him to lie. In the eyes of the American media, the genie had been put back in the bottle. Scandal? What scandal? There is no story here. Just move along.
But indeed, lawyers and judges are trained to look with particular care when an actor on the public stage makes a statement against his interest. It tends to be true. And there is every reason to scrutinize the McClellan statements very carefully, because they stack up very well against the information which emerged from Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s examination.
In fact, Fitzgerald interviewed President Bush on June 24, 2004, close to a year after Robert Novak betrayed the identity of Valerie Plame, the end result of a lengthy White House plot that involved Rove, Libby, Cheney. . . and President Bush. And on the date of that meeting, Scott McClellan appeared before the White House press corps and told them of the meeting without revealing any of its content. The substance of Bush’s statement to Fitzgerald was revealed only in July 2006 by Murray Waas:
President Bush told the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case that he directed [Cheney] to personally lead an effort to counter allegations made by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV that his administration had misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Iraq, according to people familiar with the president’s interview.
Bush also told federal prosecutors … that he had directed Cheney, as part of that broader effort, to disclose highly classified intelligence information that would not only defend his administration but also discredit Wilson, the sources said.
But Bush told investigators that he was unaware that Cheney had directed [Libby] to covertly leak the classified information to the media instead of releasing it to the public after undergoing the formal governmental declassification processes.
Bush also said during his interview with prosecutors that he had never directed anyone to disclose the identity of then-covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife. Bush said he had no information that Cheney had disclosed Plame’s identity or directed anyone else to do so.
The McClellan quote suggests very strongly that the final statement, which would have been the question that Fitzgerald put to Bush, was false. If Bush’s statement was a conscious effort to mislead a federal prosecutor on questions focal to his inquiry, this is a very big deal. Pensito Review puts the matter this way:
In fact, lying to the feds is a criminal act, even when the person being interviewed is not under oath.
To cite one recent example of this, in March 2004 Martha Stewart was sentenced to five months in federal prison for, among other charges, making false statements to federal investigators. Another more salient example: In October 2005, Scooter Libby was charged with two counts of making false statements when interviewed by agents of the FBI, along with one count of obstruction of justice and two counts of perjury in testimony to a federal grand jury.
The criminality of lying to investigators could come into play now if McClellan’s version of what Bush’s role in the apparent conspiracy differs from what Bush told U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald during an Oval Office “interview” — not under oath — on the morning of June 24, 2004, 11 months after Novak betrayed Agent Wilson’s identity.
The notion of Bush’s involvement in the plot to out Valerie Plame has been raised repeatedly. And it has some basis in the documents that prosecutors introduced in the Libby trial. Here’s a handwritten note by Dick Cheney:
The text reads: “not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy this Pres. asked to stick his head in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others.” However, the words “this Pres.” Have been struck through and replaced with “that was.” Thus in the original text, Cheney appears to be implicating Bush directly in a cover-up plan. And so does the McClellan disclosure.
This is certainly not conclusive evidence that Bush lied to Fitzgerald. But it provides another basis to suspect that he did. And if he did, his decision to pardon Scooter Libby has to be seen in an entirely different light. Bush was using the pardon power to protect himself by sweeping the entire affair under the carpet.
Public opinion polling now shows that 64% of Americans believe that Bush has abused his authority as president, and that 55% believe that his abuses rise to the level of specific offenses which would justify his impeachment and removal from office under the Constitutional standards. If McClellan’s original statement is to be credited, then two of those impeachable offenses would be making false material statements to a prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation and issuing a pardon as a part of an on-going cover-up of criminal acts. This is a presidency for the recordbooks.