Without citing any sources, anonymous or otherwise, a November 3 Washington Post article by staff writers Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig asserted that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, denied to White House press secretary Scott McClellan any involvement in the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. By making this unsourced assertion, the Post exonerated McClellan of any intention to mislead reporters in asserting at an October 7, 2003, press briefing that Libby was "not involved" in outing Plame.
In addition, VandeHei and Leonnig cited only unnamed "people familiar with the case" in reporting that White House senior adviser Karl Rove told McClellan that Rove "was not involved in the leak," and two paragraphs later reported that "McClellan relayed Rove's denial to reporters from the White House lectern" without noting that Rove's denial was also merely alleged and not an established fact.
While McClellan's "most logical defense," as a November 3 report by The New York Times put it, might be that he was misled by Rove and Libby and therefore gave a good-faith denial to the press, whether that defense is true is not publicly known. It may also be the case that McClellan knew of Rove and Libby's involvement at the time of his false statement to the press on October 7, 2003. VandeHei and Leonnig wrote as if they knew. But if they do know, rather than just assume, they didn't indicate how they know; their sourcing is nonexistent in Libby's case and thin in Rove's.
By accepting McClellan's innocence as fact, the Post: 1) provides support for the proposition that any wrongdoing by Libby or Rove was their own and did not extend further into the White House; and 2) allows McClellan and other White House officials cover to avoid answering questions about what they really knew and when they knew it.
By contrast, McClellan's role in the matter has been aggressively questioned elsewhere in the media. In an October 31 White House press briefing, NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory pushed McClellan to admit he was "wrong" in saying in 2003 that Rove and Libby weren't involved, arguing that the credibility of McClellan and President Bush "is not on criminal trial. But it may very well be on trial with the American public." Gregory then accused McClellan of an "artful dodge" when he refused to answer the question. Similarly, ABC News chief White House correspondent Terry Moran warned McClellan: "There's been a wound to your credibility here. A falsehood wittingly or unwittingly was told from this podium." On the November 1 edition of CNN's American Morning, anchor Soledad O'Brien noted that "either Scott McClellan is lying or Karl Rove lied to Scott McClellan." She then pressed Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman: "Which is it?" He replied: "I don't know the answer to that question."
From the November 3 Washington Post report:
A swift resolution [to Rove's uncertain future in the Bush administration] is needed in part to ease staff tension, a number of people inside and out of the White House said. Many mid-level staffers inside have expressed frustration that press secretary Scott McClellan's credibility was undermined by Rove, who told the spokesman that he was not involved in the leak, according to people familiar with the case.
Some aides said Rove told Bush the same thing, though little is known about the precise nature of the president's conversations with his closest political adviser.
McClellan relayed Rove's denial to reporters from the White House lectern in 2003, and he has not yet offered a public explanation for his inaccurate statements. "That is affecting everybody," said a Republican who has discussed the issue with the White House. "Scott personally is really beaten down by this. Everybody I talked to talks about this."
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, will be arraigned today on five counts, involving three felony charges, in the leak probe. Libby also told McClellan two years ago he was not involved, a denial that was also relayed to the public.