FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: ONE WEEK IN JULY

On the same day that Ari Fleischer resigned as White House Press Secretary (July 14, 2003), Robert Novak published "Mission to Niger" in which he revealed the name of top secret CIA agent. At this point, the controversy over Joe...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 07/18/2005

On the same day that Ari Fleischer resigned as White House Press Secretary (July 14, 2003), Robert Novak published "Mission to Niger" in which he revealed the name of top secret CIA agent.  At this point, the controversy over Joe Wilson's no-yellow-cake-in-Iraq Op-Ed was raging. Just the day before (July 13, 2004), Ari Fleisher had completely flipped his lid, saying that the "flap" over the Wilson piece was just a "bunch of bull," an incident so embarrassing to the White House that every record of it's existence has been removed from their website.

Interestingly, even though Novak's column was a hatchet piece about Wilson and an obvious power move in the evolving yellow cake scandal, it did move a single reporter to ask a question in Fleischer's final press gaggle.  It was not until July 22--eight full days after the Novak article first appeared--that a reporter finally asked then new Press Secretary, Scott McLellan, a question about it.

Eight days.  Top secret information released in the press by a known Republican shill, and it took eight days before the press thought it was important enough to talk about in a White House press conference. 

Here was that exchange from the July 22, 2003 White House press gaggle:

Q    The Robert Novak column last week identified the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative who was working on WMD issues.  Novak said that identification is based on information given to him by two administration sources.  That column has now given rise to accusations that the administration deliberatively blew the cover of an undercover CIA operative, and in so doing, violated a federal law that prohibits revealing the identity of undercover CIA operatives. Can you respond to that?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Thank you for bringing that up.  That is not the way this President or this White House operates.  And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth to that suggestion.  And, certainly, no one in this White House would have given authority to take such a step.

Now, at this point, it seems pretty obvious that Scott McLellan came to the press gaggle with the phrase "that is not the way this President or this White House operates" all ready to go.  But what grabs my attention is the very vague phrase about "no one in this White House" giving the authority to leak a name to the press. Did that mean, someone who was not working in the White House could have done it?  It's hard to say.   But the exchange gets much, much stranger from this point on:

Q     So you're saying --

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm saying that that is not the way that this President or this White House operates, and I've seen no evidence to suggest there's any truth to it.

Q     Are you saying Novak was wrong in saying that it was two administration sources who were the source for --

MR. McCLELLAN:  I have no idea who "anonymous" is.  I often wish --

OK, wait a minute here.  Am I imagining things or did McLellan just jump the gun on his strong put down on the "anonymous" source?  Maybe McLellan is just nervous, or maybe he's rolling out a script that is so well planned, so well conceived, that it requires bumping the question out to where the White House wants the discussion to go?  Let's pick it back up again:

Q     It's not anonymous.  He says senior administration officials.

MR. McCLELLAN:  That would be anonymous.

Q     Well, that would be senior administration --

Q     Like the guy who briefed us last week?

MR. McCLELLAN:  Whether it's anonymous senior administration officials or just anonymous sources, it's still anonymous.

Q     Is Novak lying?  Do you think he's making it up?

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm telling you our position.  I'll let the columnist speak for himself.

Q     You're saying, flatly, it did not happen, nobody --

MR. McCLELLAN:  I'm telling you, flatly, that that is not the way this White House operates.  I've seen no evidence to suggest that there's any truth to that.

So, let's see if we understand this.  According to McLellan, the official White House "position" is that "this White House"  does not give top secret information to the press. 

And here's what catches my attention:  Ari Fleischer was no longer a part of "this White House" as of the release of the Novak essay. 

I find these exchanges in July of 2003 to be, probably, the most important official statements in terms of trying to understand how the White House got itself so deeply embroiled in the present scandal. They reveal the exact moment when the White House took off the gloves. "We'll have Fleischer leak the information then resign," Rove must have said. "Then we'll have McLellan talk about the virtues of everyone in 'this' White House. Then we'll gut this Wilson like the traitor that he is.  And the Democrats won't be able to do anything about it."

Back in July 2003, the big worry in the Oval Office was not a "leak" of information.  The big worry was over a single Op-Ed piece written by a nobody civil servant--a nobody civil servant who had somehow managed to reframe the entire Iraq War in a way nobody at the White House ever thought possible.  As a result of just one essay published in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, the country had gone from seeing President Bush as the hero who took down Iraq before their nuclear bombs rained down on American cities, to being a crook who lied to America in his State of the Union address and fixed intelligence with fake reports. From hero to liar, all in one week.  In that hot week in July of 2003, President Bush's White House staff must have been suffering the worst case of framing whiplash of any administration in history.

And then came the Novak article and the Fleischer retirement, and a new face to the White House press room.

What is amazing about these early exchanges with Scott McLellan is how deftly he uses the Novak scandle to perry the yellow cake scandal. Rather than erect a wall of "no comment" as he is doing now, McLellan in 2003 drove that press gaggle directly into the headlines of the security leak in Novak's piece.  He was fearless in asserting the White House position back then.  And from what I know, there is only one thing that makes a Press Secretary fearless:  absolute certainty of where the discussion is headed.

McLellan must have known already back then that the argument vis-a-vis the leaks to Novak were that nobody in "this White House" did anything wrong.  It was a classic case of strong framing.  McLellan could deny that someone currently in the White House had leaked to Novak all day long and twice on Sunday, and in doing so, he would have implicated no one and would have distracted the press and the public away from the yellow cake scandal and into this new scandal involving a guy named Joe Wilson.

When we look more closely at this one week in July 2003, it becomes clear that the White House never intended to make Joe Wilson go away. That was not the goal of the smear campaign against Wilson and his wife.  The plan was to make Wilson the story that would take the heat off the President who had been caught telling a lie to the American public in a State of the Union address. 

Joe Wilson's accusation that the President was a liar would be reframed as a public scandal about a leak.  And judging by how confident McLellan looked in that first week of his new job in July 2003, the White House must have thought that their plan was going pretty well.  After all, it took only eight days to turn a frontal assault from the Democrats into a new frame-cum-smokescreen to the benefit of the Republican President.

And it was such a powerful frame, that it managed to contain the scandal until well after the President was re-elected.

It's amazing how quickly things can change in just one week.

© 2005 Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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