Published: 30 October 2005
There was a moment during his first US presidential campaign with George W Bush that Karl Rove made a startling admission. "I run all of my campaigns as if people were watching television with the sound turned down," he told me. And everything is a campaign for the President's senior political adviser. The Oval Office became another campaign headquarters and while the President strutted the deck of an aircraft carrier and told us the Iraq situation was under control, we watched the television warmed by the comforting images and the pleasing, muffled sound. Rove never thought the American public was paying attention. And mostly, we were not.
But we are now. The volume is turned up, newspapers are spread across our laps, and web browsers are flashing. Americans are finally politically engaged because we fear that the federal grand jury investigating Rove and other senior administration officials will show us things we do not wish to see. A president who promised to return honour to the White House and launch a new era of accountability may have as his most trusted confidante a man who has committed a heinous act of treason by exposing an undercover CIA operative. And he probably acted in consort with the Vice-President's top counsellor, Lewis Libby. We are a nation at war and face the horror that the people who claim to be leading us through these tremulous years may have betrayed the very people who are putting their lives at risk in the conflict.
And the facts of the case may prove to be considerably more disturbing than the act of exposing a CIA agent. Rove's involvement means there was probably a grander scheme he was determined to protect. When I first met Rove, he was working endless hours building the donor lists that were to transform American politics. When he summoned reporters to his office 20 years ago to suggest that a listening device he had found on the wall was put there by his Democratic opponent, we all smirked. But he had us. We wrote the story and it helped his candidate win. A few years later, the FBI agent who had investigated that bugging began issuing subpoenas to every Democratic officeholder under the Lone Star sky. Rove told journalists what was going to happen before it did. Connections were obvious. But impossible to prove. The careers of honest, innocent people were ruined.
Daily, I am asked if Rove is capable of doing what is suspected. The answer is in his history. After following him around for 25 years, I am probably the most frightened of all Americans. Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak, may eventually have some horrible truths to share. Those of us who have tracked Rove's political ascension and know what is in his tool-box are relatively confident we know why he and others ran the great risk of leaking the name of former US ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife. Rampant speculation is that an inquiry by Wilson in Niger threatened to uncover a far more devious plot.
If I were writing a novel about Rove and Libby's endeavours, my main characters would be worried that there was no proportionate response to the 9/11 attacks. How do you fight an enemy who has no country? My protagonists find a more convenient villain in the same region, and the invasion provides political and economic benefits. The challenge is to convince the public the sacrifice is necessary to protect the great republic. How do my characters do that and keep it simple to understand? Maybe they dispatch fervent neo-conservative operatives to Italy for a meeting with the Italian intelligence agency, Sismi, and the head of Italy's defence department - along with an operative from the office of the US Vice-President, and a man named Larry Franklin (who is, in the real world, going to be prosecuted for leaking government information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee).
Let's say, for the sake of intrigue, that after this clandestine meeting the Niger embassy in Rome is burgled and nothing is stolen except letterheads and seals. Eventually, clumsy forgeries begin circulating that claim to prove Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium from the African nation. Suddenly, my anti-heroes have an argument for invasion: Saddam and the bomb. The plot twists, however, when the man who will eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize calls the evidence fake. His warnings are ignored. The drums of war bang louder. The Vice-President wants the faux faxes to be real. Word comes that a former ambassador has been an emissary of the CIA to Niger and has discovered they are false. He is a threat to the case for war, and my characters hatch a plan to smack him down by leaking his undercover agent wife's name to reporters. If my hero were Rove, he understood how obsessed Libby was with Wilson. Rove would suggest the leak idea and step back.
Maybe two low-level staffers handle the leak to Judith Miller of The New York Times, an old friend of Libby's, and Robert Novak, a Republican gunslinger of a columnist and long time associate of Rove's. (What a story! My editors will never think it plausible.) I have Miller call her pal Libby and Novak phone Rove and the story is thus confirmed by "senior administration officials" that the ambassador's wife is a CIA agent. More calls are made to NBC News, Time magazine, The Washington Post. The act of treason is completed.
There is more to my story, of course. It will include a prosecutor, straight as a west Texas horizon, who is totally apolitical and humble and shows eyes worn weary by determination to serve the law. The deeper he digs, the closer he comes to discovering the most powerful people in the land appear to have acted as covert agents against their own country, manufactured evidence to deceive a great democracy into a hopeless war, committed the crime of lying to the US congress and an investigating grand jury, and cost the lives of young people from America, the UK, Spain, Italy, Australia, Iraq, and numerous Arab nations. The law and democracy are in great peril as my narrative approaches its denouement. My publisher scoffs. A book won't sell without a believable plot.
My novel, though, keeps intersecting with reality. Libby is indicted. Karl Rove remains under investigation. A nation trembles. And like a father reassuring a frightened child, I keep telling myself and my friends, "Don't worry. It's only a story. It's only a story."
James Moore is the author of 'Bush's Brain', a biography of Karl Rove