The case of the reluctant press secretary .. and the blond who came in from the cold

Nov 22nd, 2007 | By | Category: USA Today

If a diplomat is a man (or nowadays woman of course) who lies abroad for his or her country, what can a presidential press secretary in Washington DC possibly be? In any case, for a few moments this week it seemed that, as an article in the Nation proposed, former George W. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan was about to spill the beans big time, in the manner of former White House counsel John Dean, back in Tricky Dick “I-am-not-a-crook” Nixon’s early 1970s. As a subsequently largely buried Associated Press report at first announced: “Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan blames President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for efforts to mislead the public about the role of White House aides in leaking the identity of … CIA operative … Valerie Plame.” Alas, as no less reliable a source than MSNBC finally made clear: Mr. McClellan in fact “does not believe President Bush lied to him about the role of White House aides … in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, according to McClellan’s publisher.” O well. It was fun while it lasted. And maybe it will be at least amusing again for a bit when McClellan’s book actually does appear in print at last, this coming spring.

1. The deep background (just in case you’ve forgotten … already) …

Wikipedia offers a plausible enough short account of the deep background here: “The Plame affair (also known as the CIA leak scandal or the CIA leak case) is a political controversy in the United States … Beginning in mid-June 2003, according to federal court records, Bush administration officials, including Richard Armitage and Scooter Libby, discussed with various reporters the employment of a classified, covert, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, Valerie E. Wilson (also known as Valerie Plame).

“On July 14, 2003, a newspaper column entitled “Mission to Niger” by Robert Novak disclosed Plame’s name and status as an “operative” who worked in a CIA division on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Mrs. Wilson’s husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, stated in various interviews and subsequent writings … that his wife’s identity was covert and that members of the administration knowingly revealed it as retribution for his op-ed entitled “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” published in the New York Times on July 6, 2003.

“On September 16, 2003 the CIA sent a letter to the US Department of Justice, asserting that Plame’s status as a CIA undercover operative was classified information and requesting a federal investigation. Attorney General John Ashcroft referred the matter to the US Department of Justice Office of Special Counsel, directed by Patrick Fitzgerald, who convened a grand jury. The CIA leak grand jury investigation resulted in the indictment and conviction of I. Lewis [“Scooter”] Libby, Chief of Staff of Vice President Dick Cheney …

“On July 2, 2007, President Bush commuted Libby’s jail sentence, effectively erasing the 30 months he was supposed to spend in jail. The probation and fines still remain. The Wilsons also brought a civil law suit against Libby, Richard Cheney, Karl Rove, and Richard Armitage. On July 19, 2007, the civil suit was dismissed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia. On behalf of the Wilsons, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an appeal of the U.S. District Court’s decision the following day.”

2. Scott McClellan’s role and the actual excerpt on his publisher’s website …

In the early fall of 2003 then presidential press secretary Scott McClellan denied on US national TV that anyone in the White House had anything to do with the “outing” of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.

Much more recently Mr. McClellan (who is of course no longer press secretary at the White House) has been at work on a book with the somewhat intriguing title WHAT HAPPENED:Inside the Bush White House and What’s Wrong with Washington. And this week in the late fall of 2007 the book’s publisher, Public Affairs, put a very short but provocative “excerpt” from the forthcoming McClellan book on its website.

(It seems reasonable to surmise, of course, that this was strictly a promotional or advance publicity device. Mr. McClellan is apparently still working on the book, which is not scheduled to appear in its complete form in bookstores until April 2008.)

The “excerpt” here is very short, and no doubt worth quoting in full: “The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

“There was one problem. It was not true.

“I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself.”

3. Big highbrow papers print then back away from the McClellan story …

On Tuesday, November 20, 2007, later in the day, some major North American newspapers put stories about the “excerpt” from Mr. McClellan’s forthcominmg book on the Public Affairs website in prominent places on their own websites. By Wednesday morning, however, you had to search McClellan’s name to find the same stories.

That at least was our counterweights editors’ experience with the Globe and Mail website here in Toronto (the Canadian city which so agreeably hosts our editorial offices). And we had some trouble finding material on what some TV channels were already calling the “McClellan Controversy” in Wednesday’s Washington Post and New York Times as well.

A readers’ comments section on the Washington Post site began to help make some sense of what was going on. One reader asked: “Why did the Washington Post (and the New York Times) bury the story on Scott McClellan’s confession regarding President Bush?” On behalf of the Post Anne E. Kornblut answered: “I guess I would disagree that we buried’ it, though it’s true it wasn’t on the front page. So far, we have only a very brief excerpt from McClellan’s book to work with, and some of the context surrounding the incident (about his conveying false information to the public, for those of you who haven’t read it) has not yet been disclosed, but hopefully will be when the book is published.”

On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 21 two stories appeared elsewhere on the Net, further clarifying some of the reluctance to go overboard with the very brief excerpt from Scott McClellan’s current draft manuscript on his publisher’s website. An item on the raw story website, entitled “Publisher: McClellan isn’t alleging Bush took part in ‘conspiracy to mislead’,” explained: “A bombshell excerpt from a new book by former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was not an allegation that President Bush helped to mislead the public about the outing of ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame, the book’s publisher told CNN.”

The MSNBC site published a similar item, entitled “Publisher: McClellan doesn’t believe Bush lied … Spokesman ‘did not intend to suggest’ the president purposely misled him.” This went on: “Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan does not believe President Bush lied to him about the role of White House aides I. Lewis Scooter Libby or Karl Rove in the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, according to McClellan’s publisher … Peter Osnos, the founder and editor-in-chief of Public Affairs Books, which is publishing McClellan’s book in April, tells NBC from his Connecticut home that McCLellan, Did not intend to suggest Bush lied to him.'”

Just for the record, there had been two more vague and provocative earlier wire service reports, both of which were published in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. One was by the Associated Press, and entitled “Former Aide Blames Bush for Leak Deceit.” The other was from Reuters, and entitled “Former Press Aide Blames Bush In CIA Leak Case.” On a parallel (and yes of course inevitably much more modest etc) Canadian plane, two articles finally wound up on the Globe and Mail website: “IN BRIEF … Ex-press secretary blames Bush for Plame incident” ; and “Bush, Cheney lied about Plame, ex-press chief says.”

4. Where will it all go from here?

It may well be that Ms. Kornblut at the Washington Post will prove to have the best answer to this question, like it or not. After a brief advance publicity flurry just before American Thanksgiving (we have long ago had ours up here in the ice box of Canada of course, even if global warming is keeping things not quite so cool as usual), the mainstream media will not be returning to Mr. McClellan’s story until his book actually hits the bookstores this coming April. (And Mr. McClellan’s own unwillingness to be interviewed about his story right now would seem to stiffen this prospect.)

Meanwhile, for many of us who watch the USA today, as Canadians so much love to do, the story will inevitably stiffen feelings that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney probably ought to be impeached. Alas, it is almost too late for that now. And most probably it will never happen, of course, of course. You no doubt do at least have to admire the skill (or has it just been dumb luck?) with which both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have avoided such an eminently logical fate. And hope that something Scott McClellan does this coming spring 2008 will somehow help push democracy in America in the early 21st century in the much more sensible directions that the vast majority of the American people already seem to want.

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