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Tim Russert: Our issues this Sunday: February 2002—the CIA sends this man, Ambassador Joe Wilson, to investigate whether the African nation of Niger was selling uranium to Saddam Hussein. On July 6 2003, he broke his silence and appeared on Meet the Press and said this:
(Videotape, July 6, 2003):
Former ambassador Joseph Wilson: ...that information was erroneous. They were using selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision in a case that had already been made, a decision that had been made to go to war.
Russert: One week later columnist Robert Novak wrote the following: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife...is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” which has now led to this.
Attorney General John Ashcroft: The Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, with the assistance of the FBI, as the lead investigative agency, opened a full investigation.
Russert: Who? Why would anyone working for President Bush reveal the identity of the CIA agent wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson? We’ll ask him. Why would Robert Novak print such information, and why does he now protect his sources? We’ll ask him. Ambassador Joe Wilson and columnist Robert Novak only on Meet the Press. And in our political roundtable...
President George W. Bush: And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.
Russert: ...the political fallout of this investigation. And in Iraq: still no weapons of mass destruction. And just 48 hours until the California recall election. Insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times and Dana Priest of The Washington Post. But, first, Ambassador Wilson, welcome to Meet the Press.
Wilson: Tim, nice to be with you.
Russert: This is the front page of Time magazine, and I’ll put it on the screen for you and our viewers: “The War Over The Leak.” Clockwise, there’s George Tenet, head of the CIA; yourself, Ambassador Wilson; John Ashcroft, the attorney general; lower left, the president of the United States; and in the right-hand corner, Karl Rove, his top political adviser. It all came to this. In February of 2002, you went to Niger on behalf of the CIA to make a determination whether that country was providing uranium to Saddam Hussein. The president, in January of 2003 in his State of the Union message, suggested that Saddam was trying to acquire such uranium. In July, you came on Meet the Press, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying, “This is what I found out and what I did and why I went to Niger.” Why do you believe, a week after that op-ed piece and an appearance on Meet the Press, your wife was identified as a CIA agent?
Wilson: Well, let me make two points, first of all. One, there are two uncontested facts in this matter. The first is the 16 words in the State of the Union address which were not substantiated by the facts as the U.S. government knew them at the time. And the second is the leak of a CIA operative who just happens to be my wife. Now, they’re linked because—I wrote this opinion piece several months after the U.S. government itself had come out and said they were duped by information that the State Department had given to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Dr. ElBaradei had said were obvious forgeries.
Russert: From the International...
Wilson: ...Atomic Energy Agency, the head of that agency, IAEA. When the State Department said, “We were duped by that information,” that was a misstatement of fact because I knew that there were at least three reports pertaining to this particular case: mine, but also the report of our ambassador on the scene and, also, the report of the deputy commander in chief of U.S. Armed Forces Europe, a four star Marine Corps general, all of whom had gone down to take a look at this allegation and all of whom had reported that it was not true. There was one report, which turned out to be a forged document, which was so dicey that even an Italian weekly tabloid magazine would not use it. And yet it was that report that formed the basis for the 16 words in the State of the Union address. Now, as a consequence of coming out and saying that I did not find anything in Africa and the subsequent week, when these other reports came to the light of the public, it’s pretty clear to me that the administration decided—after they had acknowledged that the 16 words didn’t rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address, they decided to leak my wife’s name to the media. Now, I believe it was done to discourage others from coming forward. At that time there were a lot of analysts who were speaking anonymously to the press about any number of issues related to the intelligence that undergirded the decision to go to war. I felt that, however abominable the decision might be, it was rational that if you were in the administration and you did not want people talking about the intelligence or talking about what underpinned the decision to go to war, you would discourage them by destroying the credibility of the messenger who brought you the message. And this administration apparently decided the way to do that was to leak the name of my wife.
Russert: Was there a suggestion that this was cronyism, that it was your wife who had arranged the mission?
Wilson: I have no idea what they were trying to suggest in this. I can only assume that it was nepotism. And I can tell you that when the decision was made, which was made after a briefing and after a gaming out at the agency with the intelligence community, there was nobody in the room when we went through this that I knew.
Russert: Is your wife’s career as a CIA agent finished?
Wilson: My wife’s career will certainly change as a consequence of this. But my wife is a star in her business. She is a loyal public servant. She has done her best to defend the national security of this country for close to 20 years. I have every expectation that her culture will embrace her and that she will continue to be a productive national security officer. But clearly, her responsibilities will have to change as a consequence of this.
Russert: But she will stay at the CIA?
Wilson: As of this time.
Russert: Have you spoken to the investigators from the Justice Department yet?
Wilson: I have no comment on anything to do with the investigation.
Russert: What did journalists tell you that the White House officials were saying to them?
Wilson: Four days after Bob Novak’s article came out, which outed my wife, I was—I started receiving calls from journalists and news agencies saying, first, that “The White House is saying things about you and your wife that are so off the wall we can’t even put them up,” followed by, over the weekend—so that would have been five or six days after the Novak article —a respected journalist called me up and said, “White House sources are telling us that this story is not about the 16 words”—even though the administration had acknowledged they should not have been in the State of the Union address—”this story is about Wilson and his wife.” And finally, on Monday, a week after the Novak article, I received a call from a journalist who told me, “I just got off the phone with Karl Rove. He says that your wife is fair game.”
Russert: This was all after the Novak column appeared?
Wilson: That’s correct.
Russert: So White House officials could have been pointing out the Novak column to journalists, but that could not be considered a crime.
Wilson: In my judgment there were—after having read The Washington Post article, which quotes a source as saying that there were an initial two officials who contacted six journalists, my thinking on this is there were probably two waves. There was the potential crime of leaking my wife’s name by these two officers to six journalists. I don’t know the two. I don’t know the six journalists. I had assumed from conversations with Mr. Novak he was one. He has since said he wasn’t. And then I believe there was a second wave, which was the pushing of the story. The one was possibly illegal; the other was certainly unethical. And this is a tough town, understandably, but this is a town in which family members are not normally dragged into the public square.
Russert: Five days after your appearance on Meet the Press, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, issued a statement. It’s long, but I want to read it, because it’s very important and goes to the core of this issue. Mr. Tenet said, “In an effort to inquire about certain reports involving Niger, CIA’s counterproliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn.” That’s you. “He”—Wilson—”reported back to us that one of the former Nigerian officials he met stated he was unaware of any contract being signed between Niger and rogue states for the sale of uranium during his tenure in office. “The same former official also said that in June ’99 a businessman approached him and insisted that the former official meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss ‘expanding commercial relations’ between Iraq and Niger. The former official interpreted the overture as an attempt to discuss uranium sales. The former officials also offered details regarding Niger’s processes for monitoring and transporting uranium that suggested it would be very unlikely that the material could be illicitly diverted. There was no mention in the report of forged documents—or any suggestion of the existence of documents at all. “Because this report, in our view, did not resolve whether Iraq was or was not seeking uranium from abroad, it was given a normal and wide distribution, but we did not brief it to the president, vice president or other senior officials. We also had to consider that the former Nigerian officials knew that what they were saying would reach the U.S. government, and this might have influenced what they said.” And what the White House will say, Ambassador, is that, in the State of the Union message, the president said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium”—recently sought—and that your meeting with officials in Niger, including the suggestion that in June ’99 Iraqi officials met with officials from Niger, confirmed exactly that point: that by expanding commercial relations, they could have been talking about uranium, which would confirm the president’s suggestion that they were seeking uranium from Niger.
Wilson: Well, there’s a couple of problems with that. First of all, the meeting never took place. An intermediary came to this official, and said, “I want you to meet with these guys. They’re interested in talking about expanding commercial relations.” The person who talked to me said, “Red flags went up immediately, I thought of U.N. Security Council sanctions, I thought of all sorts of other reasons why we didn’t want to have any meeting. I declined the meeting,” and this was out of the country, on the margins of an OIC meeting. So it was a meeting that did not take place. And at one point during the conversation, this official kind of looked up in the sky and plumbing his conscience, looked back and said, “You know, maybe they might have wanted to talk about uranium.” So it was a non-meeting about a non-subject that didn’t occur and, maybe, in the voice of one person, it might have wanted to talk about uranium. Now, my report...
Russert: But George Tenet is suggesting that he did not approve of your mission or was not aware of your mission and that your findings were inconclusive.
Wilson: He would not have approved of it. This is the sort of thing that would have gone from a briefer down to the operational level. The decision would have been taken to the operational level. The results would have been reported back. My opinion piece made the point that if they didn’t agree, then that’s fine. But I said I would like to know, be curious as to know why. Mine was one of only several reports on that particular subject. It never promised to be the definitive report, and if there was other intelligence, then, indeed, there may have been something of which I was unaware. The White House, however, the next day, came out and said, “Guess what? Those 16 words should not have been in the State of the Union address.”
Russert: Shortly after your appearance on Meet the Press, you went to the state of Washington and made some comments which have been widely reported. I want to play those for you, and talk to you about them. Here you are, August 21, 2003:
(Videotape, August 21, 2003):
Wilson: Well, I don’t think we’re going to let this drop. At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me when I use that name, I measure my words.
Russert: “Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”
Wilson: The—that particular comment is taken a little bit out of context. It was written—it was taken in response to a question about whether or not I was interested in seeing the investigation go forward, which, of course, I am. Additionally, at that time, that was before The Washington Post article which cited two other leakers. So my wife thinks I probably got carried away in the spirit of the moment. So I would amend and extend my remarks. The two leakers who leaked the crime, who potentially engaged in outing a national security asset, if that was a criminal—if that was determined to have been a crime, I would love to see them frog-marched out of the White House. As to the rest of these guys who pushed this story in a way that is an abomination, even by Washington standards, I would be happy just to see them frog-marched or escorted out of the White House, out of handcuffs.
Russert: But by using the name Karl Rove at that time, you had no basis to identify him as a leaker.
Wilson: The CIA is an executive branch agency that reports to the president of the United States. The act of leaking my wife’s name was a political act. The political office resides in the White House. It seems to me to be a useful place to begin any investigation in the White House political office, which is headed by Karl Rove. Now, I don’t know if he leaked it. I don’t know if he authorized it. But I have every confidence in the world that he and the communications office of the White House continued to push this story, gave it legs, for a week after, until I appeared on an NBC program, and said this might be a violation of federal law.
Russert: Also, in terms of your political motivation, which some supporters of the president are suggesting, an examination of your political contributions, Republicans, you did give George W. Bush for President some money and Congressman Ed Royce, a Republican from California. But then they cite the following contributions: Al Gore for President, Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman Charles Rangel, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry for President. Do you consider yourself a Democrat?
Wilson: I certainly do now particularly since Ed Gillespie is running around maligning my character. That said, anything that I had to do in 2002, for this government, was done as an American, it was done on a non-partisan basis. My government asked me to do something for which I was uniquely qualified. I did it. Anybody who takes a look at the positions I took in the debate which began six months after will find that I was fully supportive of the president in his efforts to go up and resuscitate the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. I don’t consider myself to be anti-Bush. I have serious policy differences with many of his advisers. And by the way, I am an American citizen. I have every right— and so is my wife—we have every right to participate in the political process of this country. That does not make us traitors to our country.
Russert: Will you work to defeat the re-election of George Bush?
Wilson: Yes, I certainly will. I believe that this administration has betrayed the foreign policy vision offered by George Bush in his speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, when he was a candidate. This is the antithesis of everything he campaigned on in the run-up to the first election.
Russert: Will you yourself seek political office?
Wilson: I am a resident of the District of Columbia. We have no representation. Any goodwill that has come my way, and there has been an overwhelming support from Republicans who are highly indigent about this as well as some Democrats, but any goodwill accrues to my wife. Not to me. And my wife has made it very clear that—she has authorized me to say this—she would rather chop off her right arm than say anything to the press and she will not allow herself to be photographed. So while I believe she would make a wonderful politician, it is tough to run a campaign if you’re not talking to the press and you’re not being photographed.
Russert: Critics are also saying that you’re trying to exploit this with TV appearances, that you’re going to write a book, perhaps even a movie.
Wilson: I would point out that I have been willing to answer questions of the press on this matter as they’ve been asked. I have not actively sought appearances on the press. I would also point out that this is not about me, in either case. It’s about the 16 words and it’s about who leaked this to Mr. Novak. It is not about me. I have two years ago dictated for a State Department oral history program my life story. The interesting parts of it happen to do with having faced down Saddam Hussein for six months. In recent months, people have suggested that there might be a book in that as well as in other things. I have been contacted by a publisher, and as a consequence the publisher talking to me, I have had an agent who is talking to them. I don’t know where those discussions are. Last week, I was told that they wanted to try and market rights to something that I have not yet signed at the Frankfurt Book Fair next week. I said no because I did not want that to enter into this in any way whatsoever, even if it would cost me potential revenues. And by the way, as an American citizen, I’m also entitled to earn a living. That said, now that Mr. Novak has gone through my garbage and decided that he would talk about that as well, that’s fine. I now intend to go ahead and allow the publisher to market it. And I thought at one point of maybe hiring Mr. Novak as a publicity agent since every time he writes an article about me, it seems to enhances both my wife’s and my standing, but I’ve rejected that.
Russert: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from this entire incident?
Wilson: The most important thing I’ve learned from this entire incident is that this is a wonderful country. This is a democracy in which every voice counts and every voice can be heard and it is important in the public square for every voice to be heard. And I will use my 15 minutes of notoriety this time around in a way to go out and encourage citizens of this country to participate in their own democracy. And I’ve done so so far already. I was out in Ann Arbor last week speaking at a Rock The Vote meeting. And I will continue to do that as my time allows because I believe it’s vitally important that in a democracy such as ours that the citizens participate in the decisions that so profoundly affect our future.
Russert: Ambassador Joseph Wilson, we thank you for sharing your views.
Wilson: Thank you very much, Tim.
Russert: Coming next, the reporter in the center of the firestorm, columnist Robert Novak. Why did he identify a CIA agent and why does he continue to protect his sources? He’s coming up next right here on Meet the Press.
Russert: Another key figure in the leak investigation, columnist Robert Novak, and our political roundtable: David Broder, Dana Priest, Ron Brownstein, after this station break.
Russert: And we are back. Robert Novak, welcome. These are the words you wrote July 14 which have created such a firestorm: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife...is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger... The CIA says its counterproliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.” Why did you write those words? MR.
Robert Novak: I’m going to tell you the same thing that I wrote in my column and that I said in a previous interview on CNN, and that was that I thought it was very strange that the missions in Niger should be done by a diplomat with no experience in counterproliferation, who was regarded as a critic of the war and, really, had no experience at the agency. So in interviewing a senior administration official on a number of other subjects, I asked him if he could explain why, and he said, “Well, his wife works in the counterproliferation section at the CIA and that she suggested his mission.” And it was given to me as an offhand manner and by a person who is, as I wrote in the column, not a partisan gunslinger by any means. The one thing I regret I wrote, I used the word “operative,” and I think Mr. Broder will agree that I use the word too much. I use it about hat politicians. I use it about people on the Hill. And if somebody did a Nexus search of my columns, they’d find an overuse of “operative.” I did not mean it. I don’t know what she did. But the indication given to me by this senior official and another senior official I checked with was not that she was deep undercover.
Russert: The New York Times has reported and NBC has reported that she was a covert operative, however. Do you believe that you may have committed a crime by publishing her name?
Novak: No, I didn’t commit a crime by publishing her name. If she is a covert operative and the person who gave me the name knew that, which I’m not sure, I’m not sure she’s a covert operative, Tim. I have one source at the CIA who says she was not a covert operative. I don’t know for a fact. The official spokesman at the CIA I talked to, most recently this week, said she operated undercover. That is not exactly a covert operative. What kind of cover it is, I don’t know. Whether it was in a fictitious firm or a real firm, a non-official cover, those things have not been disclosed in detail by the CIA. And I think a lot of the reports in the press are maybe true and they may not be true.
Russert: In your most recent column on Wednesday you wrote this: “The CIA official asked me not to use her name, saying that she probably never again would be given a foreign assignment but that exposure of her name might cause ‘difficulties’ if she were to travel abroad. He never suggested to me that Wilson’s wife or anybody else would be endangered. If he had, I would not have used her name.” You have said that there was a “weak request” not to publish her name. What if the CIA had given you a strong request? What would they have said to you, and would you have obliged?
Novak: Just precisely what I said in the column, Tim. If they said that she was endangered, I would not have written the column. They never said she was endangered. If they really were strong about this and competent, they would have done at least that. I know George Tenet, the director. They would have put him on, and he would have said, “Novak, don’t write this,” and I would not if this woman is in danger. Now, let me add one other thing. This business about she’ll never again have a foreign assignment, this was not made as a conditional question. This was said that she’ll probably never have a foreign assignment, period. Had nothing to do with me or nothing to do, I presume, with her husband. But...
Russert: Did you tell them at the time you were going to write the name?
Novak: Ah, yes.
Russert: They knew it?
Novak: Oh, yes. And that’s why they said—this is at the end of a fairly long conversation over the report by Ambassador Wilson, which you correctly summarized earlier in this program. But I would like to repeat that once again; that there was never a question of her life being in danger. And that was either because these people didn’t think her life was in danger or they thought it and were not competent in conveying it to me.
Russert: You have said and written that you did not receive a planned leak, that in the course of conversations someone said, “Oh, by the way, are you aware that...” Newsday, two reporters, Timothy Phelps and Mr. Royce, wrote the following, quoting you as saying this: “‘I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,’ Novak said. ‘They thought it was significant. They gave me the name and I used it.’”
Novak: Yeah. That was a...
Russert: Explain that.
Novak: That was an interview right after the column appeared. They were the only—in July. That isn’t very artfully put. What I was trying to say was that I didn’t do an investigative report in the CIA going into the bowels of the CIA, talking to agents, trying to find out. What I meant was that the senior official had given me her name. Just as I’ve told you, there’s no inconsistency between those two.
Russert: So you do not believe that they were trying to plant the story with you?
Novak: Absolutely not. I have been a plantee in this town for over 40 years. I know when somebody’s trying to plant a story. This thing—this came up almost offhandedly in the course of a very long conversation with a senior official about many things, many things, including Ambassador Wilson’s report.
Russert: Why would this official happen to have know that Ambassador Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent?
Novak: Well, I think senior officials know everything, don’t they?
Russert: Do you find that curious?
Novak: No. I don’t think so.
Russert: When you say that it was not a partisan gunslinger, does that rule out Karl Rove?
Novak: I’m not going to play that game, Tim. We can—you know, remember the old game, 20 questions? And you’d like to get me in 20 questions. I’m going to stand with just what I said and you can interpret it any way you want.
Russert: Do you believe Karl Rove’s a partisan gunslinger?
Novak: That’s a kind of invidious term, isn’t it? I’m not going to play that game.
Russert: Let me turn to The Washington Post. And, well, one last thing before I—do you regret printing her name?
Novak: Oh, being a columnist and reporter for this many years is sort of like never having to say you’re sorry. But I regret one thing: I used the word “operative” foolishly, when I didn’t know she was an operative, I didn’t mean she was an operative. The rest of it I don’t regret. I try to think, if that happened again tomorrow, with not knowing anything, and a senior official had made that point to me, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t print it.
Russert: Did you have any sense when you were being told this and you were typing it in your computer, “My God, the person that told me this may be committing a crime”?
Novak: No, because the atmosphere it was given in—that’s why the “operative” word is inappropriate—it sounded like she was somebody sitting at Langley, the CIA headquarters, and doing analysis. It didn’t sound like that at all. I put it in the—may I say, I put it in the sixth paragraph of a 10- paragraph column. Usually we’re trained, if we have really something sensational, we put it in the lead. Boy, oh, boy, and I—it was almost a throw-away line in the sixth paragraph.
Russert: Have you been contacted by the Justice Department?
Novak: My lawyer has asked me not to talk about the investigation at all.
Russert: Let me turn to The Washington Post. Dana Priest, last Sunday you wrote a story on the front page which said this: “A senior administration official said that before Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife. ...‘Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,’ the senior official said of the alleged leak.” What do you make of that? What was going on?
Dana Priest: Well, I think even people within the administration thought that this stepped over the line. If senior officials, as Mr. Novak suggests, know everything, then they knew that she was covert, which she is, or she was. And they probably knew the damage that that can create, which is quite significant. Already this week, we’ve reported, again through something Mr. Novak reported, that she actually had a front company created for her. The agency does that if they want to keep somebody’s identity particularly hidden. Now, I think a lot of people have been exposed, people overseas who might have met innocently with her for lunch, gone to tennis, gone shopping. If they’re involved, if they’re connected to a foreign government, now their government is going to be suspicious of that person for meeting with her. So I think the damage is being understated here. On the contrary, I think the point of exposing her name is being overstated. I don’t think that Joe Wilson’s report about Niger made the case or broke the case one way or the other. In fact, the agency didn’t really treat it as anything particularly special, because you wouldn’t expect the government of Niger to come clean if they had given uranium to Iraq. However, David Kay, the U.S. weapons hunter right now—he said this week that, in fact, they found no evidence that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium ore from Niger, after looking through some of the seven and a half miles of documents that they’ve unearthed. That, to me, is more conclusive than what Joe Wilson had to say.
Russert: In your story, you say a senior administration official said that two White House officials which sent off an awful lot of people in this town scurrying, saying, a senior administration official, as opposed to White House official, this must be the CIA at war with the White House.
Priest: Well, a lot of people can read what they want into it and usually they’re not correct. We don’t want to go any further than we said in that. But, again, I’ll say that I think there were people in the administration who thought this crossed the line, and they were upset. And as you see in that...
Russert: But the administration’s big; it includes the CIA. Would you be willing to say the administration official in your story was not CIA?
Priest: There—I don’t want to go beyond it. But what I do want to state again that the point of the—of putting it so high in the story was that people within the administration, who support the administration, even, believe that it crossed over the line. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Russert: Bob Novak, many people have come up to me on the street and said, “Why doesn’t Bob Novak simply identify who his sources are? He knows who told him. Just say—pick up the phone, call the Justice Department, go on television and say, ‘This is who committed this crime’?”
Novak: Well, there is a code in this—the business I’m in and have made my life’s work, that you do not reveal confidential sources, sources who are giving you information, not for attribution. I have said elsewhere, on CNN, that if I were to give up that name, I would leave journalism. But I wouldn’t give up the name. I have had officials who have given me information about the government, classified, unclassified, for over 40 years, and, obviously, if you once reveal a source on that kind of information, just as Dana is not revealing the source on her story, you’re finished.
Russert: You would be willing to go to prison?
Novak: I don’t think I’ll have to go to prison. I don’t—I’d be surprised—you’re a lawyer, do you think I’m culpable?
Russert: I’m not going to practice this morning.
Russert: But would you be willing to go to prison before giving up the source?
Novak: Well, I think that’s a dramatic question that—I will not give up the source. Put it that way.
Russert: David Broder, explain to our viewers what you have observed, and why journalists have this code where they simply will not divulge their sources.
Broder: The principle is pretty simple. It is the government’s responsibility to keep the government’s secrets secret. It is not the press’ responsibility. Our inclination, once we have information, is to try to verify it, to amplify as much as we can, the background and the context. But our basic obligation, then, is to share information with the public. What routinely is done, is what Bob said he did in this case, which is to say to the government agency, “Is there any reason why I ought to do what is unnatural, which is to withhold the information?” Now, I don’t know what was said specifically to Bob, as to that case. We have his word as to what it was, and he had to make the judgment as to whether they gave him a compelling reason to withhold that name.
Novak: Could I just add—of course, and David will confirm me, that many times you get information and you check it out and they say, “Please, don’t print that. That really will cause a lot of trouble.” And we print it anyway. So, unless the trouble is defined...
Priest: But the tricky part here is the nature of the question cannot be answered by the CIA without revealing the answer to the question. And they themselves would be in tremendous trouble if they were even—if they were to say, “Don’t print that because she’s undercover.” So, they would have to be vague. And they are, usually, vague with us. That’s part of the difficulty in covering the agency.
Russert: Bill Kristol, who used to work for Vice President Quayle, now runs The Weekly Standard magazine, has written a long essay where he said the president has taken too passive a stance in this situation, that he should call in his top senior aides and demand to know exactly what happened, and then take action, fire them. He also said that the administration’s at war with itself. The CIA is in open revolt against the White House. The State Department, Defense Department are working together. Perhaps a serious talk with Tenet, Powell, and Rumsfeld could do the trick. Perhaps a head or two has to roll. David, observing the administration, what should the president be doing now, and how much disarray are we watching?
Broder: Well, I was at the Democratic National Committee meeting yesterday where Al Sharpton said the president is moonwalking this question, and I think he’s got it about right. It is hard to believe that if the president, when he was dealing with a finite universe of possible leakers, did not really put the heat on, that he couldn’t get an answer to his question.
Russert: What do you think, Bob Novak?
Novak: I don’t know. I’m in an impossible position on this and I...
Russert: That’s why you’re here.
Novak: That’s why I’m here, but I’m not going to speculate on that.
Priest: Well, in the beginning of the week, it looked like they were trying to flush out the small circle of people they thought could be the culprits by saying, “We’re going to conduct interviews”—they didn’t use the word suspects, but they didn’t need to. Now, it looks like they’re giving people a little bit more time to come up with the memos and things like that, which suggests they didn’t flush out anybody. And now it will be very difficult. And the stakes for an individual are quite high. While it’s not evident that they would go to prison because they may not have known her status, still, huge embarrassment, and potentially they could go to prison.
Russert: We’re going to take a quick break and come back and talk about the California recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger—will he be the next governor of California? Will Gray Davis be recalled? We’ll find out right after this.
Russert: And we are back. The California recall. Knight Ridder newspapers and our affiliate in San Francisco NBC-11 talked to voters in California over the last four days, and this is what we found out. Voting yes on recall, 54 percent say Davis should be recalled; 41 percent say no. Who should he be replaced by? Arnold Schwarzenegger, 37 percent; Lieutenant Governor Bustamante, the Democrat, 29 percent; Tom McClintock, state senator, Republican, 15 percent. The pollster did acknowledge that the race appears to be tightening somewhat. The undecided vote may be going up. Rob Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times in California. Ron, tell us about the race. How do you see it?
Ron Brownstein: Well, Tim, right now it looks chaotic, raucous, angry and, like everything else in American politics, very polarized. The revelations about Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly, I think, are having some effect on him. All the reports primarily in my paper about allegations of groping and sexual misconduct do seem to be raising more doubts about Schwarzenegger among voters. But the opinions about Gray Davis are very settled. In that poll that you mentioned, he is still receiving a negative job approval rating, from two-thirds of Californians, a number that really hasn’t changed in any major poll throughout this entire process. And so while there is some turbulence in voter opinions—and there are some polls that Democrats are very excited about, some polls Friday night and, as you mentioned, even in this poll, support for the recall dipped a little bit toward the end of the polling period—it is still an uphill struggle for Davis because there are a lot of Californians who simply believe that he has failed at the job. They may be uncertain about Schwarzenegger, but they are pretty certain about Davis. It’s somewhat reminiscent, very quickly, of a race like 1992, the presidential race, where Republicans at various points were successful in raising lots of doubts about Bill Clinton, but they were never able to change the negative impression and perception of the first President Bush. And in the end that was the dominant factor, the negative views on the incumbent, and I think that Davis is still facing that challenge here.
Russert: These are the headlines that confronted Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of the week. From the LA Times: “Women Say Schwarzenegger Groped, Humiliated Them.” And from The New York Times: “Schwarzenegger Admired Hitler, Book Proposal Says.” Mr. Schwarzenegger, on Thursday, decided to address one of these allegations. Let’s listen:
Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Wherever there’s smoke, there’s fire. It is true. And so what I want to say to you is that, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets, and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful. But now I recognize that I have offended people. And to those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I tried to do.
Russert: David, how do you see it?
Broder: Well, I was told last night, by somebody who’s been tracking very much what Ron said, that the race has gotten more interesting but that there still seems to be a firm majority in favor of the recall. This is a flawed process. A man who I was talking to said, “If Leon Panetta’s name had gone on the ballot as an alternative, he would be winning this race hands down. But because of this peculiar process there, people are in a dilemma because they don’t want to keep Governor Davis as their governor, and they don’t really want to see any of these alternatives become governor.” The overriding sentiment seems to be, “Let’s shake up Sacramento,” which is bad news for Governor Davis.
Russert: Dana, as you’ve been watching this and you see Arnold Schwarzenegger try to deal with the allegations of groping women, what’s your sense?
Priest: Well, my sense is maybe we’re seeing the evolution of a new political strategy. If you admit anything and say you’re sorry, maybe it’ll go away. I mean, I hate to think that that would be the case because I can’t imagine that this is not going to resonate so poorly, especially with female voters. But as David said, it’s just frustration with the alternatives.
Russert: Bob Novak?
Novak: Let me respectfully disagree with David on the Leon Panetta thing. I think Leon Panetta, if he’d have entered, would have sunk without a trace. Nobody knows Leon Panetta in the state of California. The most distinguished name on that ballot was Peter Ueberroth, the former commissioner of baseball, the head of the very successful Los Angeles Olympics. No support for him. But people know The Terminator, and they knew Schwarzenegger, so he had an enormous advantage. Secondly, I believe that the most predictable thing about this election was that in the last week of the election, there was going to be what they used to call be a roar-back against Schwarzenegger, scandalous implications and that Gray Davis would try to make the most of them. I think that has had a negative effect, from what my reporting is, with voters, and that’s why these numbers have not apparently, in the overnight trackings, moved appreciably, the idea that the last week of the race you put out all this dirt. And I think there’s a lash back against the Los Angeles Times.
Russert: The Davis campaign will say that their track shows it tightening rather significantly, as a result...
Novak: Other organizations show the opposite.
Russert: Ron Brownstein, you want to get in?
Brownstein: Well, I did. I mean, I think Bob is wrong in what he’s saying, that they are putting this out. I mean, it’s very clear in the original story. The authors say explicitly that none of those women were brought to the Los Angeles Times by any of the campaigns or, in fact, that any of them originally came to the Times at all. They were all found by the kind of shoe-leather reporting that Bob, I think, should respect. Now, once the original report emerged, calls have been coming in from women who said they had similar experiences, and there has been a significant and, I think, very rigorous filtering process in which the paper has not printed any allegation in which they could not confirm that the person made a contemporaneous complaint or at least after-the-fact complaint long before the recall. So there are many more names, Bob, that are not appearing in the paper. There are four more today. I mean, I think to say that all of this somehow is manufactured by the Davis campaign, I think, both slights the journalism that was done and also, I think, slights the problem that is there in terms of so many people having had experiences that they feel compelled to come forward about.
Novak: Ron, I didn’t say that it was manufactured by the Davis campaign. What I said was the predictable things was there was going to be this kind of insinuations in the last week, and that Davis would make the most of them. He is trying to make the most of them. He is asking for a criminal investigation. That is his whole campaign now because he is discredited otherwise. But I did not—and I think if you’ll look at what I said, I did not say that it was inspired by Davis.
Brownstein: You said it was put out by it. You used that phrase.
Novak: I did not say that. I did not say that.
Brownstein: I think you said that. All right.
Novak: No, I didn’t.
Russert: We all recall at the end of the 2000 presidential race, when revelations about George Bush being arrested for DWI when he was a younger man—and to this day, the Bush campaign believes, David, that that created an anxiety in the voter’s mind and really did keep turnout in favor of the now president down in certain states, particularly amongst conservative Christians.
Broder: They may very well be right. And people take these elections seriously when they’re choosing a chief executive, whether it’s for the country or for the state. And the people that I talked to, when I was in California, have this concern about their state. It’s not a question for them of simple celebrity. It is a question of who can get the problems of California —begin to address those problems. So when you attack the credibility and the behavior pattern of the presumably leading candidate, you are going to have some effect on the voters.
Novak: Can I...
Priest: But newsrooms just don’t operate that way. They don’t sit on stories. You know, they— including the LA Times. I’m sure their reporters, first of all—they were not insinuations. They’re much harder than insinuations. And you’re implying that it came in the last week as part of an effort that would include the LA Times. And having been in reporting environments in which you’re reporting on candidates, you get it out as soon as you are sure. And you know the stakes are going to be high in this case because people are going to make these allegations, and I think the reporters there had to make sure they had ironclad stories before they released them.
Novak: Well, to me, it is more in coincidence and it always happens in the last week of the campaign, as it did with the DUI with Bush. It doesn’t happen around Labor Day. Let me say one other thing: that I thought one of the interesting developments was the speech by Maria Shriver, Schwarzenegger’s wife, on Friday afternoon. I don’t know how many of you saw that.
Novak: It was really a brilliant political speech, which I think, if he was in trouble, probably saved him. And the second thing is, I think this—if Schwarzenegger is any kind of a decent governor, this could have a really salutary effect on the Republican Party in the state of California, it—which has been sinking without a trace. And the White House seemed to have given up on the California party just trying to make it a strictly—carrying it for Bush in 2004. A Schwarzenegger administration, if the economy improves, could be a very pleasant surprise for the Republican Party.
Brownstein: Can I make two points, Tim?
Russert: You think—go ahead, David.
Brownstein: Can I jump in? First, Dana is absolutely right. I mean, the reporters and the editors are very clear. They printed this story as soon as they were able to confirm it. I think everyone would agree that you want to be very sure of something like this before you go into print. Secondly, I agree with Bob, I mean, on the broader political point. Although these controversies may affect that, the promise of Schwarzenegger to the Republican Party here was getting out of the catch-22 they’ve been in. It is a very moderate to liberal state on social issues, and they simply have been unable to get candidates through their primary process who reflect that. And they, as he said, have sort of been sinking without a trace for a decade. Schwarzenegger offered the potential, and may still, in fact, offer the potential, of expanding the party base. He is moderate on social issues, he’s strong on public education and so forth. The question is whether the way this campaign is ending, this extraordinary campaign, where he may win the governorship but have fewer people vote for him than voted to keep Gray Davis in office, where you’re seeing this intense polarization in public opinion as a result of these allegations, it does put him in a more partisan corner to start. And I think it’s going to make the task tougher of changing the image of the party and reaching out to some of the centrist voters they’ve lost over the past decade.
Russert: David, only a few seconds. Arnold Schwarzenegger, if he’s elected, will it be helpful to George Bush in 2004?
Broder: I don’t think it has much effect on 2004. Bush is going to have to make the case himself to the California voters as to why they should support him when they did not in overwhelming numbers last time.
Russert: David Broder, you’ve been on Meet the Press 40 years. We’re marking it today. This was your very first appearance. This is what you looked like.
Broder: Oh, no.
Russert: There he is, David Broder, July 7, 1963. Here he is, 40 years later. We hope you’re here forever. Thank you so much.
Broder: Thank you.
Novak: Just improves with age.
Russert: And we’ll be right back.
Russert: Tonight at 7 p.m. on “Dateline,” Tom Brokaw interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.
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