Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) is calling for an investigation into the role of former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. Conyers’ call comes after a new report by investigative journalist Murray Waas that a special prosecutor was appointed in the case in large part because FBI investigators had begun to specifically question the veracity of accounts provided to them by Karl Rove. We speak with Conyers and Waas. [includes rush transcript]
We begin today looking at the latest in the investigation into who within the Bush administration outed CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Congressman John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, is calling for an investigation into former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s role in the case.
Ashcroft initially refused to recuse himself from the investigation despite his longtime association with Karl Rove who was being questioned over the leak by the FBI. At the time, Ashcroft was being personally briefed about the investigation. Conyers described this as a "stunning ethical breach that cries out for an immediate investigation."
Conyers’ call comes after a new report by investigative journalist Murray Waas that Justice Department officials decided to appoint a special prosecutor in large part because investigators had begun to specifically question the veracity of accounts provided to them by Karl Rove.
When first questioned by the FBI, Rove failed to tell investigators that he had talked to Time reporter Matthew Cooper about Wilson’s wife. In addition, Rove claims that he learned of Valerie Plame’s identity during a conversation with a journalist. But according to Waas, Rove was unable to recall virtually anything to investigators about the circumstances about that conversation including who the journalist was or whether it took part in person or on the phone.
- Rep. John Conyers, a longtime Congressmember from Detroit. He is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
- Murray Waas, veteran investigative journalist who writes for a number of publications. Among them, American Prospect magazine and Salon.com. He has broken a number of stories on the saga of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. He maintains a blog at WhateverAlready.blogspot.com.
AMY GOODMAN: Murray Waas joins us on the phone from Washington, D.C., veteran investigative reporter who writes for a number of publications, among them, American Prospect magazine and Salon.com. He maintains a blog at WhateverAlready.blogspot.com. We are also joined on the line by Michigan Congressmember John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Congressmember Conyers. Can you talk about exactly what you are asking the Inspector General to do?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Thank you, and good morning. The Inspector General has a responsibility, from our perspective, because they oversight the activities of the Department of Justice, to find out whether or not the Attorney General at that time, John Ashcroft, violated explicit rules of conflicts of interest when he failed to immediately recuse himself from the investigation, and not only did he not recuse himself, he was briefed on it about the Valerie Plame C.I.A. leak. And he did this knowing that a person of interest to the investigators was Karl Rove. Now, as it turns out, Karl Rove had been a political consultant for John Ashcroft. As a matter of fact, he had promoted his name for nomination for Attorney General and had a very close business relationship with him earning nearly $750,000 plus, obviously, a very clear political interest.
So, we’re asking that that be examined right away. There’s also usual bar rules of professional conduct that are operative here for the District of Columbia, that state: Without consent a lawyer shall not represent a client if the lawyer’s professional judgment may be adversely affected by the interests of a third party in the matter. So, we’re merely asking, this very late recusal of Ashcroft, which was too little and too late, be very clearly investigated. The last point is, of course, that it ties in with the requirement that all memoranda, evidence, telecommunications, email, be preserved in a matter like this, and we don’t know what’s being done in the Department of Justice about that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congressman Conyers, what specifically are the regulations in the Justice Department for officials and what they — what investigations they may or may not participate in?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, they’re pretty standard, because the federal law requires that every department create them, and obviously, the Department of Justice would be one of the first places that we would know that that would happen, and it couldn’t — it’s very unlikely that not only Mr. Ashcroft didn’t know about it at the time, or certainly his aides did. The federal law requires the Attorney General to promulgate rules mandating the disqualification of any officer or employee in the Department of Justice from participating in any investigation or prosecution, if such participation may result in personal, political conflict of interest, or even the appearance thereof. And those rules have been around for quite a while. So, the fact that Mr. Ashcroft did ultimately recuse himself, to me, demonstrates, of course, that there was a conflict of interest that had existed there all the time that would prevent any impartiality.
AMY GOODMAN: How much support do you have in calling for this investigation? Congressmember Hinchey, but anyone else?
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, actually, the letter went out just recently, and the gentleman from New York, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, has been working on this matter, and we were able to have him join me immediately. It will be gaining attention to the members who are in recess as we go on today. But I think for here, you almost don’t need a number of members to ask that a law as clear and obvious as this, under the circumstances that we have before us, Amy, that we need a particularly long list of members. I can’t imagine many members that would have any reservations about this kind of a communication.
AMY GOODMAN: Murray Waas, you write in your blog, WhateverAlready, that you’ve learned, according to law enforcement officials, that Attorney General Ashcroft was personally briefed on the Rove interview. What exactly do you understand?
MURRAY WAAS: Well, we first, to take a couple of steps back, the Attorney General, according to, at some point when I wrote about this last year, the Director of Communications for the Department of Justice, Mark Corello, confirmed what I had learned from sources inside the Department of Justice, and that’s that Ashcroft got almost regular briefings, if not one a day, one every second or third day about virtually everything going on in the investigation.
I had one senior official tell me that whatever the F.B.I. knew, the Attorney General was able to know or did know within days. And the briefings were conducted by Christopher Wray, who was then head of the Criminal Division, and then John Dion — I hope I’m pronouncing his name right — or Dion, who was the former counterintelligence expert, 30-year veteran at the department, who was conducting the day-to-day investigation of the Plame allegations before they relented and then appointed the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. So, this was almost — he involved himself in a very direct and personal way as Attorney General, and in a way that, you know, if this happened in the Clinton Department of Justice on Whitewater or something similar, there would have been an extraordinary outcry. But, essentially, they admitted that much.
What I learned new for this last piece is that the threshold event or the straw that broke the camel’s back, essentially, was that Ashcroft was personally briefed about an F.B.I. interview with Karl Rove in which the investigators believe that Karl Rove withheld crucial information from them, which he talked about earlier, namely that he had spoken with Matthew Cooper about Valerie Plame. He didn’t disclose that at all. And so, the Attorney General, a good friend of Karl Rove, a close political associate of Karl Rove, was told that a person of interest, a subject of the investigation, had lied and wanted to continue to be briefed and wanted to continue to be involved and essentially set aside, as Congressman Conyers was talking about earlier, the bar standards, the Department of Justice guidelines, virtually every standard for a lawyer in this country that should be met.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Murray, at a certain point, the Attorney General did recuse himself. What have you been able to discern in your reporting? What led to that, and also you do indicate that other members of the Justice Department were increasingly worried about the Attorney General’s interest in the case?
MURRAY WAAS: Well, after the Ashcroft — after the Karl Rove interview, in which the investigators had a strong belief that they were being misled or lied to by Rove, or that he was omitting information, namely the Matt Cooper discussion, but also just this — it’s a little, I don’t want to call it far-fetched, but it would seem on its face a little bit implausible that Karl Rove learned this information from a journalist, but he couldn’t recall the journalist’s name, he couldn’t recall whether it was on the telephone, he couldn’t recall whether it was in person. He didn’t have any memos or notes about it, even though he’s a meticulous notekeeper and has a very good memory. You know, it’s quite possible that Karl Rove is telling the truth. But, once the suspicions reached the level that they did, the career officials, the lot of them just said, 'Enough is enough.'
And at that point, as well, Congressman Conyers, Senator Schumer of New York, had already been calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor in this matter, but James Comey, who’s the Deputy Attorney General, who just left last week, he was coming into his new position. He had had been confirmed by the Senate. And he was asked quite doggedly by Senator Schumer and others about this issue, and he had personally pledged, given his word, that the investigation wouldn’t be compromised, that it wouldn’t be tainted. And so the recusal by the Attorney General, the appointment by the special prosecutor came three weeks after he began his job, and it also shortly — it also happened shortly after the Rove interview in which investigators thought that Rove withheld information.
So, all this gave a lot of ammunition and a lot of power to those making the case that Ashcroft recuse himself, but assuredly, he should have done it earlier. From the initial moment of the investigation, I mean, Rove was somebody who was going to be under suspicion, and the two of them were — you know, as Congressman Conyers was pointing out, the two of them were close political and personal associates, and the standards are that you recuse immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: Murray Waas, we’d like to ask you to stay with us and thank Congress member John Conyers for joining us. When we come back from break, we’ll also be joined by Michael Wolff, who has written a piece in the September issue of Vanity Fair, talking about the greatest irony of Rovegate, that the press was part of the cover-up.