Katie Couric, host of NBC's Today, prefaced her questioning in an October 18 interview with Karen Hughes, under secretary of state for public diplomacy, by baselessly stating, "I know you're not at liberty to talk about the investigation into the CIA leak" involving the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, essentially inviting Hughes to answer any questions about the leak investigation by saying, "I'm not at liberty to talk about it." In fact, Hughes is very much "at liberty" to talk about the leak investigation. She and others in the Bush administration have simply chosen to avoid answering questions by saying they won't talk about the investigation. The ability of members of the Bush administration to discuss the investigation whenever and wherever they please is evidenced by the fact that some administration figures, including President Bush himself, have discussed the investigation recently.
As Think Progress pointed out, during his October 18 briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan illustrated the administration's malleable view of whether it can discuss the investigation. Asked whether President Bush is "confident that Cheney did not leak Valerie Plame's identity," McClellan replied, "[O]ur policy is not to comment on an investigation while it's ongoing. And that means any question relating to it. And I'm just not going to comment on an investigation while it's ongoing." In response to the very next question following this unqualified claim that he would not comment on "any question relating to" the investigation, McClellan did just that. Asked whether Bush or Cheney had been asked to appear again before the special prosecutor, McClellan replied, "No, the president has not. I provided you information when he was interviewed previously. And my understanding is the same applies to the vice president" -- very clearly a comment about an ongoing investigation.
Bush himself has discussed the investigation as recently as July 18, when he stated "I would like this [leak investigation to] end as quickly as possible so we know the facts, and if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration." But that didn't stop Bush from declaring on the October 11 broadcast of NBC's Today, "I've also consistently said I'm not going to talk about the case. It's under review. And so I'm not going to talk about it. Thank you for asking. But on the other hand, the -- the special prosecutor has made it clear -- has made it clear that he doesn't want anybody speculating or talking about the case. So I'm not going to talk about it. ... I'm not going to talk about the case. I've been asked this a lot. I've -- my answer is consistent. And the special prosecutor is conducting a very serious investigation -- he's doing it in a very dignified way, by the way -- and we'll see what he says."
Think Progress has also pointed out that, although McClellan's comments on July 11 suggested that the administration was somehow forbidden to comment by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak, a parsing of the press secretary's words reveals that Fitzgerald merely "expressed a preference" that the administration refrain from commenting on the investigation. Moreover, federal rules governing grand jury inquiries do not require the secrecy of witnesses or the subjects of investigation.
As for Hughes, she reportedly refused to answer written questions submitted by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) about her role in the case during her July Senate confirmation hearings.
But rather than offering Hughes a lifeline by (falsely) saying, "I know you're not at liberty to talk about the investigation," shouldn't Couric been prepared to respond to a Hughes claim that she couldn't discuss the matter by pointing out that, in fact, Hughes can do so -- as Bush and McClellan have recently? Moreover, if Bush's and McClellan's demurrals and Hughes's prior refusal to answer Kerry's written questions gave Couric reason to believe that Hughes would not discuss the investigation now, and if therefore Couric had no intention of pressing Hughes on one of the biggest news stories of the year, why have her on at all? Evidently to ask her questions such as this about Harriet Miers, President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court: "Do you think she'll be confirmed?" And Hughes's shocking response? "I do think she'll be confirmed."
Hughes was no bystander in the administration's efforts to sell the country on the war in Iraq, reportedly the impetus behind the outing of Plame. Indeed, Hughes reportedly played a prominent role in the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) -- which the October 12 Wall Street Journal reported has increasingly become a focus of the leak probe. The Washington Post reported August 10, 2003, that Hughes was among the members of the WHIG, a task force convened to "educate the public", in the words of one member, on the threat allegedly posed by Saddam Hussein during the run-up to the Iraq war. And, as the USA Today reported on July 23, 2003, Hughes, along with then-White House communications director Dan Bartlett and Mary Matalin, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was responsible in the summer of 2003 for devising the strategy to defend the administration's claims on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. According to the October 12 Wall Street Journal, Fitzgerald's investigation has recently focused on the WHIG because "[t]he group likely would have played a significant role in responding to [former ambassador Joseph C.] Wilson [IV]'s claims," which undercut the administration's assertion that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Niger, a key component of the administration's case for war. Fitzgerald is investigating whether Bush administration officials leaked the identity of Plame, Wilson's wife, in an effort to discredit the former ambassador.
From the October 18 broadcast of NBC's Today:
COURIC: On close-up this morning: Karen Hughes. She is one of the president's closest confidantes, and after a stint away from Washington, she is now back as the under secretary of state for public diplomacy. On Monday, we sat down for an exclusive wide-ranging interview at the State Department, and I began by asking her about the intense criticism the president has been receiving for nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court:
HUGHES: Well, I can't speak for others, but for myself, I am very disappointed, because I know Harriet well. She is extraordinarily intelligent. She has a vast array of life experiences. She's just an exceptional person. She's one of the finest people I know.
COURIC: Do you think she'll be confirmed?
HUGHES: I do think she'll be confirmed.
COURIC: I know you're not at liberty to talk about the investigation into the CIA leak, but clearly with [White House senior adviser] Karl Rove testifying before the grand jury and [I Lewis] "Scooter" Libby [Cheney's chief of staff] as well, how concerned is the White House about the possibility of indictments?
HUGHES: Well, as you know, it's an ongoing investigation, and so really it's something that we were asked not to discuss, but it's not something that's affecting -- I don't think -- the daily business of the White House, and it's business as usual in terms of conducting the nation's business.
COURIC: Let me ask you about the vote on the Iraqi constitution, if I could. Over 10 million Iraqis cast ballots. I guess in midweek we'll know if the constitution passed. Do you think it's a boon for democracy whether it does or not, by the very fact that so many people came out to vote?
HUGHES: Absolutely, because look at what happened this time. We had greater participation than they've ever had, including higher levels -- numbers of Iraqis going to vote than voted in January.