Gathering storm plagues Bush


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Gathering storm plagues Bush
By Michael Gawenda

Thorny questions: President Bush faces the media in the White House Rose Garden. He has vowed to avoid the "background noise" of his political problems and focus on the nation's needs.

Thorny questions: President Bush faces the media in the White House Rose Garden. He has vowed to avoid the "background noise" of his political problems and focus on the nation's needs.
Photo: AP

* Key Players

AT THE White House press conference after his meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, President Bush said he would answer two questions from the assembled journalists.

A score of hands shot up, all wanting to signal they had a question and every question was the same: how President Bush was managing to do his job given the scandals and problems that were plaguing his Administration.

How could he not be distracted, when House majority leader Tom Delay had been indicted on corruption and conspiracy charges; when Senate majority leader Bill Frist was being investigated for possible insider share trading; when Hariet Miers, his nominee for the Supreme Court, was under attack by conservatives of all stripes?

Above all, how could he avoid distraction when the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into the leak of the identity of a CIA agent was "out of control" and had extended to the most senior White House officials, including Vice-President Dick Cheney?

With a bemused Mr Abbas looking on, Mr Bush could barely control his anger as he insisted that he was not distracted by what he described as "background noise".

Some background noise. What began as a request by the CIA in July 2003 for the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of CIA covert agent Valerie Plame to conservative columnist Robert Novak, who "outed" her in a syndicated column, has morphed into a full-blown crisis for the Administration.

It could well lead to the indictment of Karl Rove and of Mr Cheney's chief-of-staff Lewis Libby as well as a number of other White House and Cheney staffers and — if Fitzgerald finds that Mr Cheney was aware of what Mr Libby was doing to protect and defend his boss — it could destroy Mr Cheney himself.

What began as a more or less routine attempt by Administration officials to discredit Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame's husband and a somewhat flamboyant former diplomat, who accused Mr Bush and Mr Cheney of basing their case for the war in Iraq on intelligence they knew was false, now threatens to engulf Mr Bush in a scandal that will, at the very least, seriously weaken his presidency. "Of course the President is concentrating on the big issues, but the Fitzgerald investigation and the possible indictment of Rove and others is the big elephant in the room," one anonymous White House official told CNN.

Washington is abuzz with rumours about who will be indicted by Mr Fitzgerald, about infighting and selective leaking against each other by White House aides and about whether Mr Fitzgerald has got a White House official to "roll" and implicate other "co-conspirators".

This week, in an attempt to protect the President, White House aides leaked a story that Mr Bush was furious with Mr Rove back in 2003 for the clumsy and inept way Mr Rove had tried to discredit Mr Wilson. Several days later, came another leak, that Mr Rove and Mr Libby had exchanged information about their contact with reporters about Valerie Plame in the days before her cover was blown by Mr Novak.

Despite all the rumours and leaks, the fact is that no one knows what Mr Fitzgerald will do. Mr Fitzgerald, a Chicago-based US attorney who successfully prosecuted leading Mafia figures in Chicago and the

terrorists responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Centre, and is known to be tough and zealous, has run a tight ship; there have been

virtually no leaks from his office.

According to online bookmakers, as good a source as any, the odds of Mr Rove having to leave the White House have moved from 6-1 to odds-on in recent weeks.

Mr Wilson and Ms Plame are in some ways an odd pair. They appeared in a picture spread in Vanity Fair, driving a convertible, her bond hair peeking out from a head scarf, his raffishly long hair blowing in the breeze, both looking a Hollywood power couple rather than a former diplomat and a covert CIA agent.

Mr Wilson was sent to Niger by the CIA, on the recommendation of his wife, in early 2002 to check claims that Niger was getting ready to send yellowcake uranium to Iraq.

More than a year later, after Mr Bush in his State of the Union speech in January 2003, said British intelligence had confirmed that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium for a nuclear weapons program from Africa, Mr Wilson wrote an

article for the New York Times accusing the Administration of knowingly using false intelligence about Saddam's alleged attempt to buy African uranium.

A few days later Mr Novak outed Ms Plame, and four months later Mr Fitzgerald was brought in to investigate who had leaked her name to Mr Novak, which is a criminal offence.

At the time, White House officials insisted that there had been no leaks from the Administration and Mr Bush said that if there had been leaks from the White House, the people responsible would be fired.

Almost two years later, it is clear that a number of Administration officials, including Mr Rove and Mr Libby, had indeed, at the very least, talked to reporters about the fact that Mr Wilson was married to a CIA agent who had recommended him for the Niger mission.

The big question now, apart from who will be indicted by Mr Fitzgerald on charges that could include perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy — all based on alleged lying to Mr Fitzgerald's grand jury — is whether Mr Cheney knew what Mr Libby was doing and how much Mr Bush knew about Mr Rove's attempts to discredit Mr Wilson.

At the very least, it seems Karl Rove's career might be over and Mr Libby, a key architect of the Bush Administration's "pre-emptive war" policy in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war, regarded by many as the most powerful foreign policy adviser in the first Bush Administration, could end up in jail.

What would it mean if Mr Rove, Mr Bush's closest adviser and the man he credits with being the architect of his 2004 victory, was forced out of the White House? For more than 31 years, since Mr Rove first met Mr Bush in Texas and started planning Mr Bush's political career, the two have been virtually inseparable.

David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who has argued that Mr Bush would never have nominated Hariet Miers for the Supreme Court had Mr Rove not been distracted by the Fitzgerald inquiry, says that losing Mr Rove would be a devastating blow to the White House.

"He is truly the indispensable man," he says. "The distraction over the past weeks with hurricane Katrina and Hariet Miers offers a glimpse of White House decision making without him."

As for Mr Libby, once a hero of the neo-conservatives at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, The Age was unable to get any of the institute's leading lights to defend him on the record.

Off the record, one said that he was a brilliant man and that Mr Libby, together with his mentor, the former deputy defence secretary and current World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, had provided the intellectual muscle for the war in Iraq and for Mr Bush's unilateralist "pre-emptive war" policy.

If both Mr Rove and Mr Libby are forced out of the White House, the Administration, beset by myriad problems and challenges, would be seriously weakened. And if Mr Cheney was somehow implicated in the CIA leak scandal, the Administration would truly be in uncharted waters.

White House deputy chief-of-staff and senior White House adviser. Bush's closest political associate and the architect of Bush's 2004 presidential campaign. Alleged to have leaked the identity of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame to Time magazine journalist Matt Cooper.

New York Times journalist with ties to the Bush Administration who wrote numerous stories about Iraqi WMD that turned out to be at best questionable. Spent 85 days in jail for refusing to name Libby, with whom she had discussed Wilson and the fact that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Later testified before the Fitzgerald grand jury.

Ambassador to Niger in the 1970s who was sent to Niger in early 2002 on the recommendation of his CIA agent wife Valerie Plame to investigate whether Saddam Hussein was negotiating the purchase of uranium yellow cake from the country. Wrote an article for The New York Times in July 2003 accusing the Bush Administration of hyping bad intelligence to justify the war in Iraq.

US attorney based in Chicago was appointed to investigate the Plame leak in December 2003. He made his name prosecuting major Mafia figures in Chicago and the terrorists responsible for the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993. He is known for his zeal and toughness.

The right-wing columnist who first disclosed Plame's name and role in July 2003. The identity of his source is the crucial element. It is an offence to reveal the identity of a federal secret agent.

Covert CIA operative specialising in WMD. Recommended her husband for the CIA Niger investigation. Her cover was blown in July 2003 by conservative columnist Robert Novak, who claimed he had learnt of her identity from two White House sources. Plame had not been an active agent for six years and had been a housewife looking after her two young children in suburban Bethesda when her CIA links were revealed.

Dick Cheney's chief-of-staff, leading neo-conservative and a member of the White House Iraq Group, charged with co-ordinating plans to sell the Iraq war to the public. As part of an inter-agency battle with the CIA, allegedly leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who was jailed for 85 days for refusing to name him as a source.
the president I miss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!fought extremism and terrorism seriously and appropriately!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!with tenacity and leadership!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!