American Scandal

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Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.

Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.

The Plame Affair - Inside the Fight in Washington | 4

The Plame Affair - Inside the Fight in Washington | 4

Tue, 07 Jan 2020 10:00

Washington, D.C., erupted in a political firestorm in 2003, after Valerie Plame’s identity was revealed to the public. Host Lindsay Graham talks with Matthew Cooper, a journalist who covered the story for Time magazine. Cooper also became part of the story, when he was held in contempt of court for refusing to name the sources who disclosed Plame’s identity to him.

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From Wondry, I'm Lindsay Graham and this is American Scan. It's January 2003. Millions of Americans are watching the State of the Union address delivered by President George W. Bush, where he delivers 16 words that alter the course of global history. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Watching that announcement is Valerie Plain. It doesn't make sense to her. Just months earlier, her husband Joe Wilson, went to the African country of Niger to investigate a similar accusation and he concluded that the report was not reliable. When he hears about the announcement, he goes directly to the media with an op-ed in the New York Times and an interview on Meet the Press. When the White House finds out, they go on the offensive and soon in retaliation, they leak a big secret. This is the story of the Valerie Plain affair. And while it's centered on abusive power in the halls of Washington, it's also a story about journalists and their right to protect their sources. Today we finish the series, hearing from someone who is at the center of it all. Matthew Cooper was a White House correspondent for Time Magazine during this chapter. He became part of the story himself after he refused to reveal his White House sources. Here's our conversation. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y Podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y Podcast on Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts. Matthew Cooper, thanks for talking to me today. Hey, thank you. It's great to be here. So the Valerie Plain story is one about journalism as much as it is about politics. You're a journalist for Time when you found yourself in the middle of the story that you were sent to cover. You learned about Joe Wilson when the rest of us did after his op-ed in the New York Times. That's also probably when the White House first drew their scope on him. Do you know what the feeling was in the White House after his op-ed came out? Well, I think there was a two levels. I think publicly they listened to the findings and didn't react with any particular VMNC either way. But privately, in phone calls with me and other reporters, they were deeply upset by Joe Wilson's op-ed. They believed, or at least said they believed that Wilson's mission was a flawed one that he was sent by his wife at the CIA and that that in and of itself somehow made his mission flawed. And privately, they were against him. Do you know where this animosity really came from? Did you believe their claims that they were against his mission because it was a flawed one or they were against his mission because it spoke against their narrative? Well, I think it's the latter. I think it spoke against their narrative. If I may just give some context. Wilson's op-ed appeared in the summer of 2003. This was a few months after what seemed like a successful invasion of Iraq and an effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But by that time, none of these weapons of mass destruction, which were initially the cause of our war against Iraq, had been found. Wilson's op-ed, which said that he'd been dispatched by the CIA to investigate a British claim that Saddam Hussein was looking for uranium in the African country of Niger. Wilson claimed that he didn't find any of that. That undercut the administration's case. The president had cited Saddam Hussein's looking for uranium in Africa as one of the reasons for the war. And so I think what they had against Wilson was not that his mission was flawed, although that's what they said. I think they were concerned that he was undercutting their narrative and galvanizing questions about, hey, where are these weapons? Three or four months since we toppled Saddam Hussein, we haven't come across any uranium or other indications that they really had a robust program of developing weapons of mass destruction. So I think they were angry at Wilson, even if they said they were just angry at the process. I'm curious, a lot of White House policy seems to be and has always been personal. And it seems like it was then as well. I think that after the invasion of Iraq was concluded and no weapons of mass destruction were found as they weren't, then the gig would have been up anyways. Wilson's column just maybe if anything accelerated the process. And in fact, probably their counter attack made it more prominent. Why do you think White House politics at the moment were personal when really we are invading a country which seems like a large and serious undertaking? Well, I think they were deeply concerned that the war which they had fought so hard to enlist support for both domestically and overseas, which they had prosecuted and which seemed to have gone relatively smoothly. I think they were deeply upset that anyone questioned at that point the claim that Saddam Hussein had a robust program of developing weapons of mass destruction. And so I think they did take that personally. I think they were also cognizant of the fact that as Wilson explained in his op-ed that the reason he went looking for this supposed Iraqi mission to get uranium out of Africa was because the vice president had raised questions about it and transmitted to the CIA and the CIA then called on this former ambassador Wilson to look. So I think the premise of your question is right. I think a huge national matter of life and death, war and peace came down to something very personal. After Joe Wilson's op-ed, journalist Robert Novak revealed that Wilson's wife Valerie Plame was working for the CIA. That was the political firestorm. The moment when it began, what did you feel or see or witness when Novak's column came out? Well, I was struck by it because I had heard the same thing a few days earlier from a source who was Carl Rove that they were making a hay of the fact that Wilson's wife was at the CIA and seemed to have something to do with his being sent. And by the way, there's nothing inappropriate about that. It's not like going to the share as a junket. There's no four seasons hotel in the year. It's not like they were sending him for a vacation. And Valerie Plame had worked on issues of nuclear proliferation. So it was not unreasonable. Plus Joe Wilson had been in a diplomat in the Middle East in Iraq in the first Gulf War. So there was nothing troublesome about Wilson being the one who got sent to do this mission. In any event, as you asked, my reaction to the Plame thing was it was now clear to me that they were dishing Joe Wilson very heavily behind the scenes. And that there was as I wrote as a co-wrote in a piece for Tom Magazine, there was a war on Wilson that was going on on a kind of subterranean level with journalists. And that's what struck me the most. Well, it sounds like one of the chief architects was Carl Rove, who you just mentioned. Remind us who Carl Rove is. Well, Carl Rove was in many ways the best known member of the George W. Bush administration. He was a political consultant and strategist from Texas, where Bush was the governor. He had helped Bush with his previous campaigns to become the governor of Texas. And was the architect of Bush's two victories in the presidential race. Rove had gone into the White House, into the administration, when President George W. Bush was elected. So he was an important person. When he told me that Joe Wilson's wife was involved in the trip, that I shouldn't lie in his Wilson, he used the words don't get too far out in front of this. But what he meant was don't lie in his Wilson. I knew that was a big deal. You've already mentioned, and I agree with you that sending Joe Wilson seemed like a good idea. Whatever involvement of his wife Valerie doesn't seem to be cumbersome or problematic. What is the insinuation Carl Rove was making? Well, this is what I found so confusing at the time. The idea that someone's wife might be involved in their mission to Niger was to mean not particularly troubling. Niger is not a vacation spot. It's one of the poorest countries in Africa. It's a tough assignment. It's not a fun assignment. And Wilson was clearly experienced. Now later it emerged that Valerie Plam had worked on issues of non-proliferation. So she was entirely qualified to be involved in that decision. Remember this whole mission that Wilson took began at the behest of the vice president. As Wilson explained, vice president Cheney had been taken by a British report that said that Saddam Hussein was looking for uranium in Africa. And he wanted to know more about it, which is perfectly appropriate. And so he asked the CIA and the CIA chose to send Wilson, a celebrated diplomat who had been praised by the first president push, who had had a heroic role in the first Gulf War. Helping to protect and evacuate Americans. And it seemed perfectly appropriate that they send someone of his caliber. So I was quite taken, taken aback by the dissing of Wilson. And that's what I tried to convey in this piece I co-authored called a war on Wilson. I wanted to convey that there was a subterranean war going on to diss him, even though publicly their comments had been rather benign. Well, let's get to how you enter the story. It is with this article of war on Wilson. What was in that article in particular? Well, that article, which was co-written with two of my time magazine colleagues, basically said that in the week or so that it transpired after Wilson's original outfit. It basically made the case that there was a subterranean war on Wilson that the White House was dissing him and it wasn't just Karl Rove to me. It was the Vice President's Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, one of the most prominent supporters of the war as was his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney. And so in this piece I wanted to make it clear that, well, Novak, the colonist who exposed Plains identity just kind of repeated what he had been told, I tried to make it clear that there was a whole drama going on behind the scenes. So that's what I was trying to do in the summer of July 20, 2003. And a little did I know that this would lead to me being in Snared Intellegal Case that would go all the way to the Supreme Court? Well, which part in Snared you? Well, it was clear from the piece that we had spoken to people who had, like Novak, revealed Plains identity. And it became clear that there was going to be a real outcry but finding out who leaked her identity. Democrats called for an investigation and not only an investigation, but they called for a special counsel to investigate and discover who did this and whether there was anything illegal. Indeed, the CIA itself had made a criminal referral to the Justice Department about this, which is what kicked off the legal part of this story. So it became clear pretty quickly that the Justice Department, the FBI was going to come knocking. Eventually they did come knocking. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes and conspiracy theories together. And we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there. And we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the Evil Genius Bank robbery and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener, follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon Music or every listen to podcasts, or you can listen ad free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. So over the course of the next year and a half, there were these investigations that resulted in two subpoenas of journalists, you and a New York Times journalist named Judith Miller, who'd also received leaks like you did. Judith Miller ended up spending 85 days in jail after she refused to reveal her sources. You also did not reveal your sources initially. Why? Why would you put yourself or and why would Judith put herself in such jeopardy? Well, there is a principle in journalism and I think it applies in some other cases like clergymen and a parishioner husband and wife. There's a sacred principle in the law of the affords confidentiality, certain kinds of conversations. In my tribe and in journalism, this is really kind of sacrosyced because only if people are assured of anonymity and confidentiality, well they come forward as whistleblowers. That's what happened in the Watergate case in the 70s. That's what happens often, all kinds of cases of corporate and government malfeasance. People come forward only if they can protect their identity. And if journalists violate that, it's a big deal. It's going to have a chilling effect on other people who might want to come forward and they might constrict the flow of information to things that, you know, the American people need to know. And so myself and Timing, the parent company of Time Magazine took this claim very seriously. I heard some of the best lawyers in America and fought this case all the way to the Supreme Court. I should say that other journalists were called to testify along the way in this case, deferring degrees, including Novak himself, including the late NBC Washington Bureau Chief and House of Meet the Press, Tim Russell, even the legendary Bob Woodward. So lots of people were called in this case, but it was clear that Miller and I had a particular knowledge that the prosecutor wanted to know about. How was this time for you? I mean, you're literally looking down jail time. How did you manage? Well, it's intimidating. I was in my early 40s, at a young son. You know, I was very concerned about it. On the other hand, look, I wasn't facing criminal charges. I had no one accused me or any other journalist of crime. I was facing with contempt of court or refusal to respond to a subpoena. And the way that works is the ineffectology there until you decide to speak. You have the keys to your own self, you decide to speak. So, you know, I was quite concerned about it. I knew that the case law to protect journalists in a situation like this was not great. If I was in state court, lots and lots of states, 49 in fact have some kind of protection for journalists. But I was in federal court and it had been termed by the Supreme Court some 30 years earlier that there wasn't such protection for journalists or their readers in federal court. I knew I didn't have a lot of legal protection. I knew the case wasn't likely to go well. And it was of concern to me, to say the least. You mentioned that you were in your early 40s and had a young child. How did you prepare your family for what you were potentially facing? My then wife was supportive and understood, came from a family journalist and understood what was an issue for me as a reporter. The tougher thing was having the young son, you know, just six years old. And at some point, you know, we did have to tell that I might be going away for a while. Funny thing is, it happens we've been reading some of the original Dr. Do Little Books, you know, the famous character in film and books who can talk to the animals. In one of the Dr. Do Little Books, Dr. Do Little breaks the law and frees a seal who's been held by a malevolent circus master. And he has to go to jail for a little while. So even though I hadn't broken the law, I was in contempt of corporate. I was in a criminal. You know, that was a useful analogy to explain to my kid, hey, you know, this happens sometimes. You don't want to go against what the court or police say, but sometimes it happens. And I was glad for Dr. Do Little's example. Eventually, though, you did reveal your sources, but only after they allowed you to disclose. Well, that's right. And that's what happened with Judith Miller, whose case was joined to mine as it went through the courts. Eventually, she received permission. Yes, both the important sources for that piece for me, Carl Rove and Scooter Libby said it was okay for me to speak. They said it was okay for that kind of a revelation. And so I did not go to jail. Well, Judith Miller got her similar kind of permission to speak a few weeks after she'd been in jail. And you know, eventually we both testified. Let's talk about your second source, Scooter Libby. He was a former advisor to vice president Dick Cheney and eventually was sentenced to prison himself on several felony counts, including obstruction and lying under oath. What was your conversation with him? I understand that it was both on and off the record. But first, what are those distinctions? Well, you have to be fairly specific with the source because sometimes people have different definitions. Generally, the idea of background is that you can use the material, but you can't attribute it to someone by name. So you could say a senior administration official, that kind of designation that you often see in the press. That's background where you can use it, but you have to protect the person's identity. Off the record is, you know, generally you can, you can, you know, use it to confirm something, perhaps, but you can't quote it in any way the way you could out background. Now, I spoke to Scooter Libby a few days after I talked to Rove. He was just getting back to Washington after joining vice president, Cheney for christening a new-wear craft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan. We spoke very quickly. He was kind of in a rush. I asked if you had heard about this, this blame thing, about, you know, that she had been involved in dispatching Joe Wilson. He confirmed that. So I now had a couple of people talking about blame. My colleagues had some others. And I think at that point we were ready to write a story that said, hey, there's a war on Joe Wilson. They might be being relatively benign above ground, but underground with reporters, they were really attacking him. But, you know, Libby was convicted of these accounts applying to this special prosecutor, or obstructing justice. He was, had a sentence commuted by George W. Bush. Actually it was reduced. I mean, he still lost his law license and had to pay a series fine. Eventually, President Trump came along and got rid of that as well. So he's, you know, in effect, two presidential partners have, you know, been offered to him and taken. And so, you know, I testified in that trials did a number of journalists. And it's an interesting case because the original underlying crime or alleged crime of leaking her name was never prosecuted or let them convicted. There was any ant just a case about lying to the prosecutor. And that's what often happens in a lot of criminal cases. That's what happened with Martha Stewart, for instance, wasn't about the underlying issue of manipulating securities. It was about whether she had lied. So, a lot of cases become an effect perjury traps. And this was one of them. I believe the conversations you had with Rove and Libby were characterized not so much as planted information that they directly came out and said Valerie playments a spy. But they might have confirmed rumors that you'd already had. Is that correct? Well, in the case of Libby, it confirms what I had heard from Rove. But the information Rove imparted to me was something I had never heard before. I had never heard that one that they were really upset about Wilson behind the scenes. And I had never heard of his wife. You know, we had our conversation before Novak had his. But Novak was the one who revealed her identity. So, no, I had not heard about her. He had given it to me and put it out there. Now, to be fair to Rove and Libby, the original person who told Robert Novak about all this was a State Department official named Richard Armageddon, who worked for Colin Powell, then the Secretary of State. And Armageddon ironically was not a big fan of the Gulf War, as Powell was not. And so that surprised a lot of people. A lot of people thought, well, whoever started all this was going to be a super defender of the war, like Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby. But it turned out ironically that it was just kind of a gossipy mention of her by this Armageddon choose relatively opposed to the war. That got all this rolling. That's one more interesting twist in a crazy case. That is interesting because you would think with several journalists, handful of sources, you've named three Armageddon, Jroven, Libby, there seems to be a co-lessing narrative against Joe Wilson to discredit his discrediting of the war on Iraq. But you seem to indicate that this was not coordinated, that it was more of just a gaggle of gossip out of the White House. Well, I think in the case of Armageddon, is it later emerged that was kind of more gossip than anything. But I think it was a little better coordinated, I don't think it was entirely organic with, in terms of folks in the White House. The president was on a foreign trip, while lots of this was going on, ironically to Africa. There were people there who were making similar points to some of my colleagues. I think there was a little bit more coordination than that, but at least one part of it began as just kind of gossip. It was kind of incredible. I think what's at stake here were a couple of very important principles. There were kind of in some ways and conflicts with each other. One was the sanctity of confidential sources that's so important, a journalism but really important to the American pupils so they can find out about things. Malfee's and corporations are in government, but have you. That's super important. At the same time, revealing the identity of a CIA operative is serious business. That's why the CIA did a criminal referral to the Justice Department. It's why there was a special prosecutor. It's a big deal. It can cost lives. If you reveal that somebody, even if they're not currently a secret operative, the fact that they once work can jeopardize anyone they might have worked with or have been a helper to them in a foreign country, it can really have a lot of consequences. There were a couple of big things at stake here. Speaking of, I'm interested in knowing your thought process when it was revealed to you the Valerie Plain was a CIA agent. Is this something that you contemplated writing about yourself? Would you have ever revealed her identity? No, I wouldn't have. I think I was more scratching my head about it until I, no fact, then revealed it. But I think we got kind of sworn off revealing her name. This often happens. You know, you check somethings out. Sometimes the government asks you not to print it and you take their claims seriously and sometimes you go ahead and other times you don't. In this case, there was no intention of us to print her name. But once it was out, in a widely syndicated national column and thus had attention all over the globe, you know, then we were okay using your name, but also trying to make a larger point that there was this kind of underground war on Joe Wilson that, you know, we wanted to do more than just be a transmission belt for the administration's dissing effort. We wanted to make it clear that something else was going on. It's been quite a while, 16 years since the playma fair. We have a bit of hindsight. Thinking back on that event, what is, what is it significance? What, what lessons should we take from it? Well, I think we have to be questioning and skeptical and concerned when leaders want to do something as grave, really the greatest thing they can do is take us into war. And I don't think there was sufficient skepticism concern about this basic claim. You know, lots of governments supported that claim. Even people who oppose the war often, you know, took an at face value that said, I'm saying had nuclear weapons. In fact, that was some of the opponents of the war. I think it's important we're not only, you know, question whether it's good idea to go to war, but question each premise because sometimes these things aren't true. And we're seeing that in some recent reports out of Afghanistan that, you know, that we were kind of fed some misleading stuff about how well the war was going. And we saw this in Vietnam too. And look, we see it in other walks of life. So it's really important to, you know, I think for reporters to be vigilant for citizens to be vigilant for us, members of Congress, what not to be vigilant about, about these things because the cost in American lives is severe. So that's the big takeaway. And I think the other takeaway is that journalists in federal courts still don't have the legal protections of confidentiality that they are afforded in state courts. After this case, I testified as to another journalist to get Congress to write a so-called shield law that would offer this kind of protection, but that did not pass. Interestingly, Vice President Mike Pence was one of the big supporters of that shield law. It was an issue that cut across ideological lines, but alas, there wasn't enough support to pass it as I think would have been a good idea. So I think we still have the threat of journalists going to jail. There have been some other cases of journalists going to jail for doing their jobs. But it's, it's worrisome. It is an issue also in the plain case that there was an attack on the, you know, what President Trump calls the deep state. Others might just call the, you know, professional men and women who serve in government. The fact is that the administration of President Bush was very skeptical of what they were getting out of the CIA because the CIA was well, many of the agents down in the bowels of the agency were expressing concern about what they really was weapons mass destruction. Vice President Cheney went over the CIA at one point physically, put some pressure on the folks over there. And then when they got this answer from Joe Wilson, they didn't like. They smeared him behind the scenes. They didn't really listen to the State Department that said, hey, we're going to need a lot of resources to, you know, stabilize this country after we go in. I think the underestimated the, with the Pentagon was saying about the number of forces you would need to not only knock off knockoffs, sit out his hand, but to, you know, keep a stable force there. So, look, there's nothing wrong with a White House or Congress questioning those in government and asking tough questions and setting overall policy. But really good leaders, you know, accept the bad news. And often they, you know, they're open minded when they hear things that they don't want to. And they, they recognize that they might be wrong. Matthew Cooper, thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you so much. That was my conversation with Matthew Cooper, who was a White House correspondent for Time Magazine during the play of fair and became embroiled in the scandal himself. Next, on American scandal, we're taking a few weeks off, but we're returning January 28th with a story from 2007 when Volkswagen is aiming to become the biggest car maker in the world. A central part of its strategy is to sell more diesel cars, but to reach its ambitious targets, the company will set in motion one of the biggest frauds in automotive history. And as this plan unravels, Volkswagen will face a very public record. From Wondery, this is episode four of four of the Playma Fair for American scandal. In our next new series, Volkswagen aims to become the biggest car company in the world, and a central part of its strategy is to sell more diesel cars. But to reach its targets, the company will set in motion one of the biggest frauds in automotive history. American scandal is hosted, edited and executed produced by me, Lindsey Graham for airship. This episode was produced by Austin Cross. Execute producers are Stephanie Jenns, Jenny Lauer Beckman, and her non-loved best for Wondery.