For consumers of political news, there should be two cardinal rules: First, take with a grain of salt anything you might hear on the McLaughlin Group. Second, don't ever implicitly trust anything that Mike Isikoff writes.
Here are the facts that are known at this time: Karl Rove did indeed talk to Time reporter Matthew Cooper just three or four days prior to Cooper writing about CIA officer Valerie Plame. I spoke earlier this morning to Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, who confirmed that this was the case, as he has told other journalists as well. And the notes that Time turned over to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald do include details of the conversation that Rove and Cooper had.
But it is quite a stretch from those scant known facts to imply or infer, as Isikoff did in his Newsweek post, that Karl Rove is the person that leaked Plame's identity as a covert CIA officer to columnist Robert Novak, Time's Cooper, or others. For one thing, it is unclear what exactly is in Cooper's notes regarding his conversations with Rove and others. (And if Isikoff knew such specifics, he would have reported them, as would have I or any other journalist covering this story.) Secondly, Rove was hardly the only Bush administration official with whom Cooper spoke to before he wrote about Plame.
What then is Isikoff's other purported evidence that it was Rove who leaked Plame's name to Robert Novak, or that Rove is being targeted by federal prosecutors?
Isikoff writes: "[O]ne of... two lawyers representing a witness sympathetic to the White House told NEWSWEEK that there was growing `concern' in the White House that the prosecutor is interested in Rove." That is fairly flimsy evidence: Isikoff has none of the federal investigators talking to him, and not even someone in the White House talking to him. Rather, he has a single source-- an attorney for one of those who has provided information to prosecutors-- repeating speculation from some unknown person in the White House as to what the prosecutors might or might be doing. Even as speculation, it is third hand.
I carry no brief for Karl Rove. But I do not like shoddy journalism. And this was an example of exactly that.
Isikoff's story did not have several qualifications that responsible and fair journalism should require. His story also omitted information clearly exculpatory to Rove.
Rove's attorney, Luskin, for example, told me earlier this morning that he has been assured by special prosecutor Fitzgerald that Rove has not been a target of his grand jury investigation: "We have been assured consistently that Karl is not a target of the inquiry." Luskin said that the last such assurance from Fitzgerald's office was "within the last several days."
Luskin also told me that he informed Isikoff of much the same thing, but that Isikoff did not see fit to report his comments in his story. Absent evidence to the contrary, Newsweek had an obligation to give Luskin and Rove their say.
In his Newsweek posting, Isikoff also darkly insinuated that Rove must have done something wrong because Luskin has declined to provide more than scant details regarding his client's appearance before the federal grand jury. But, as other journalists who have regularly covered this story can tell you, Fitzgerald has asked witnesses to his inquiry-- and their attorneys-- not to publicly disclose what they have told the FBI, or what they testified to before the federal grand jury. That is because Fitzgerald, like many prosecutors, doesn't want one witness to know what another has said to his investigators so they can devise a cover story. That is how coverups succeed, and crimes go unpunished.
Luskin, himself a former federal prosecutor, told me: "They [the prosecutors] have wanted their witnesses in a pigeon-hole. They have asked us to say as little as possible so we would not impede them."
There has been a sharp contrast between the way Newsweek on the one hand, and this blog, the wires, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times have covered these latest revelations. Newsweek's story is an instance of sloppy reporting. Bill Kovach, the former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, editor of the Atlanta Constitution Journal, and founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, famously said after Isikoff's erroneous story that a Pentagon report concluded that a Koran had been flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo: "Here is a reporter who can shake stuff out of deaf and dumb people... As the course of events in [the Koran story] has shown, you can't play fast and loose." It is more than a little disconcerting that this irresponsible story follows so closely on the heels of his Koran flushing story.
Once again, for the record, I carry no brief for Karl Rove. To the contrary, I have pursued the Plame story, breaking significant new ground, including this report in the American Prospect. I have probably spent more time on the story than any other reporter in Washington, and think the press has not been aggressively pursuing the story the way it should. For those who think I have some soft spot for Rove, I personally angered him, I was told on good authority, when I wrote this story, in which I disclosed:
President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, told the FBI in an interview last October that he circulated and discussed damaging information regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame with others in the White House, outside political consultants, and journalists, according to a government official and an attorney familiar with the ongoing special counsel's investigation of the matter.
But Rove also adamantly insisted to the FBI that he was not the administration official who leaked the information that Plame was a covert CIA operative to conservative Robert Novak last July. Rather, Novak insisted, he had only circulated information about Plame after it had appeared in Novak's column...
Rove and other White Hosue officials described to the FBI what sources characterized as an aggressive campaign to discredit Wilson through leaking and disseminating derogatory information regarding him and his wife to the press, utilizing proxies such as conservative interest groups....I also carry no brief against Mike Isikoff. In terms of full disclosure (or perhaps too much disclosure): During our reporting on Whitewater and the impeachment crisis, he did privately comment to some mutual acquaintances that I was carrying water for the Clinton White House because my reporting was too critical of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Isikoff later apologized, and we have socialized on rare occasions.
Still, in the case of Isikoff's coverage of Whitewater, as well as his reporting of this story, I believe fair play took a back seat to causing a sensation. Perhaps Isikoff will tell folks I am an apologist for Karl Rove and the Bush White House!
My brief here is for quality journalism. The reason: One day, the nation may very well face a constitutional crisis of the magnitude of Watergate. In that case, the "system worked" because so many ordinary folks rose way above their institutional and political biases for the greater national imperative. In instance after instance, FBI agents, Hill investigators, the Watergate Special Prosecutor, and the press simply did their jobs responsibly, ethically, and sometimes bravely.
But who today, like W. Mark Felt, would tell what they knew to Time magazine or others in the press, knowing that Time's editors would not keep secret the identity of their sources? Would MSNBC and Fox and the other cable so-called "news" networks be devoting all of their resources and air time to finding Natalee Holloway, the missing teen in Aruba, that they wouldn't even notice there was a consitutional crisis going on? And who would believe reporters who in the past produced so much reckless reporting, whether it be about Korans be flushed down the toilet, or Whitewater?
It is brave new world of the media today, and if Richard Nixon were alive today and president of the United States, the little horrors of Watergate and his lawless presidency might very well go uncovered, undetected, and even if found out by the press, undetered. Today, the press stands weakened as an institutional challenge to lawless governmental authority or lies. Sadly, it has been so weakened not so much by assualts from without but within.