Karl Rove

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(HOST) Is the case of Presidential advisor Karl Rove and the outing of a covert agent a big deal or a partisan political squab- ble? Commentator Barrie Dunsmore has some thoughts on the matter.

(DUNSMORE) I have to confess that when I heard his Republican defenders claim that Karl Rove was being “smeared” by his Democratic critics I had to smile. It’s ironic that the master of politics of personal destruction is a getting taste of his own medicine.

This is a very complicated case. And just where Special Prose- cutor Patrick Fitzgerald is going to take it is not at all clear. But whatever happens, the credibility of the Bush White House has been seriously tarnished by its initial flat denials that Rove was involved. He was – deeply. And now, having once said that he would fire the person responsible for the White House leak, Pres- ident Bush has reversed that position by saying someone would be fired only if a crime was committed.

The primary point to remember is that this case is directly tied to the Bush Administration’s argument that Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction justified the American invasion. When no such weapons were found and critics emerged to ques- tion the rationale for the war, the policy was to silence or discredit those critics, be they former American ambassadors or high ranking United Nations officials. And journalists were used to do some of the hatchet work – eagerly, in the case of columnist Robert Novak, or as part of his job, in Time Magazine Matthew Cooper’s case.

Don’t be confused by red herrings such as Cooper’s stated reasons for asking to speak with Rove. Journalists often do not want to give their real reason for calling and instead leave bait to lure the source to call back. But official sources know the game, too – and how to exploit such exchanges. They will often casually drop a word or a phrase at the end of a conversation, perhaps im- plying that they are just trying to be helpful. A good reporter will know when a message is being sent, however cryptic.

Likewise, if a journalist seeking confirmation of a fact or story tells a high level source something, and the source says, “I’ve heard that, too,” that doesn’t mean it’s office-water-cooler gossip. You both know that’s a solid confirmation. I once had a big story con- firmed by a high official who said nothing at all, but merely looked at me and slightly nodded his head as he left a meeting.

With one journalist already in jail for refusing to divulge her sourc- es, a significant issue this case has raised is the need for a fed- eral shield law to give some protection to reporters from having to reveal confidential sources. What I and others have previously written bears repeating. So far, this case is the equivalent of Woodward and Bernstein being sent to jail for not revealing Deep Throat’s identity to the Watergate prosecutor, while Richard Nixon and his co-conspirators got off scot-free.

But the story is not over yet. And there’s still one other similarity this case may have to Watergate: It wasn’t the crime that was Nixon’s undoing; it was the cover-up.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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