Terror Watch: Turning Up the Heat

While New York Times reporter Judith Miller went off to jail today, the decision by another journalist, Matthew Cooper, to testify before a federal grand jury could increase the pressure on the White House in the nearly two-year long furor over the leak of a covert CIA operative's identity.

In a startling turn of events, Cooper initially said in court today he was fully prepared himself to go to jail as well. Then, right after he had hugged goodbye to his young son on his way to day camp, he got a last-minute "communication" from his source giving him his direct and "personal" assurance that he was relieving Cooper of his pledge of confidentiality on matters relating to a Time article that identified Valerie Plame as a CIA official. Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who made news when he said that, contrary to President George W. Bush's assertion, Iraq had not bought uranium from Niger as part of its nuclear program. Bush had said in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa--citing this one of his reasons for believing that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction. *Editor's note

Cooper did not publicly identify the source. NEWSWEEK reported this week that one of Cooper's sources identified in internal computer e-mails turned over by Time this week is deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, told NEWSWEEK today that Rove "did not call Cooper" prior to today's court hearing, nor had the two of them "spoken" about the subject of waiving confidentiality.

But Luskin would make no other comments, including whether there had been any other form of communications between Cooper and Rove. Last week, Luskin confirmed that Rove and Cooper had spoken prior to the publication of the original Time article, but said that Rove "did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA" nor did he "knowingly disclose classified information."

Luskin had also noted last week that Rove, like other White House aides, had signed a "waiver" relieving any reporters that he spoke to of any claims of confidentiality. But Cooper said today that such "waivers"--requested by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's office and distributed by the White House counsel's office--were "not worth the paper they were written on" because they would inevitably have to be signed under some form of coercion. That's why Cooper placed such emphasis on receiving the unspecified personal "communication" from the unspecified source.

The dramatic intervention that spared Cooper jail, however, may do little to immediately clear up the confusion over precisely who did leak Plame's name--especially since Cooper made clear that he was only prepared to identify his source to the grand jury, not the public. But today's developments, including the imprisonment of Miller, could turn up the heat on the White House to resolve a mystery that has provoked intense speculation for nearly two years.

Fitzgerald has made repeatedly clear in his court filings, and again in court today, that he views the leaking of Plame's name as an effort to "retaliate" against Wilson for publicly criticizing the White House over their Iraq policy. (It is a crime to knowingly disclose the identity of an undercover CIA agent.) At one point, Fitzgerald today even cited the title of Cooper's original article, "A War on Wilson?" referring to the Bush administration's "feud" with the former diplomat. NEWSWEEK has previously reported that, after columnist Robert Novak's article identified Plame, Rove helped fan the flames against Wilson, calling NBC Hardball host Chris Matthews to tell him that Wilson's wife was "fair game."

But the White House has consistently refused to comment about those and other reports about White House attempts to strike back against Wilson. After a round of initial denials that Rove or anybody else was "involved" in the leaking of Plame's name, the White House press office has refused to make any public comments about what White House aides may or may not have told journalists--a position it repeated this evening. "The president's instruction from the beginning was to fully cooperate with the investigation," a White House spokeswoman said. "As part of the cooperating, we are not going to comment on any matters that come up during that process."

But with today's developments, the political atmosphere could change. For openers, Cooper would inevitably have to tell the grand jury exactly which "government official" had "noted" to Time that Plame worked for the CIA, as his original article put it. That could well produce some level of nervousness. Assuming the official works for the White House, and Fitzgerald's probe has focused heavily, if not exclusively on White House staff members, it means there will be direct testimony from a reporter that somebody on the president's staff did something that was publicly denied--a potential political embarrassment. For another, the specter of Miller being carted off to jail means she is going to jail to protect somebody else in the president's employ--another situation that in other respects might be viewed as politically untenable.

The president's defenders have, in the past, derided Fitzgerald's investigation, saying the alleged retaliation was a typical political defensive strategy against an obnoxious public critic. Wilson had suggested that Rove should be "frog-marched" out of the White House, in handcuffs. The statement was much criticized at the time as an example of the partisanship of the former diplomat. But regardless of the ultimate culprit, Wilson has not backed off an inch. "The fact that there was a White House smear campaign was unethical to say the least," Wilson said in an interview today, adding that, in his view, "there's no reason" the White House should not provide a public accounting of what took place.

Terror Watch, written by Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball appears online weekly