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Profile: Stephen Gillers

Stephen Gillers was a participant or observer in the following events:

The Justice Department authorizes the FBI to open a criminal investigation into leaks of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert identity by sources within the Bush administration (see July 14, 2003, July 30, 2003, and September 16, 2003). [MSNBC, 2/21/2007; Washington Post, 7/3/2007] The investigation is headed by the Justice Department’s counterespionage chief, John Dion. [Vanity Fair, 1/2004]
Questions of Impartiality - Dion is a veteran career prosecutor who has headed the counterespionage section since 2002. He will rely on a team of a half-dozen investigators, many of whom have extensive experience in investigating leaks. However, some administration critics are skeptical of Dion’s ability to run an impartial investigation: he will report to the Justice Department’s Robert McCallum, who is an old friend and Yale classmate of President Bush. Both Bush and McCallum were members of the secret Skull & Bones Society at Yale. Others believe the investigation will be non-partisan. “I believe that the career lawyers in Justice—the people who preceded [Attorney General] John Ashcroft and who will be there after he leaves—will do a nonpolitical investigation, an honest investigation,” says legal ethics specialist Stephen Gillers. “Ashcroft’s sole job is to stay out of it.” [Associated Press, 10/2/2003; Los Angeles Times, 10/2/2003]
CIA Director Filed Request - The request for an investigation (see September 16, 2003) was filed by CIA Director George Tenet; a CIA official says Tenet “doesn’t like leaks.” White House press secretary Scott McClellan says he knows of no leaks about Wilson’s wife: “That is not the way this White House operates, and no one would be authorized to do such a thing. I don’t have any information beyond an anonymous source in a media report to suggest there is anything to this. If someone has information of this nature, then he or she should report it to the Department of Justice.” McClellan calls Joseph Wilson’s charges that deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove leaked his wife’s name (see August 21, 2003) “a ridiculous suggestion” that is “simply not true.” A White House official says that two administration sources (later revealed to be Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage—see June 13, 2003, July 8, 2003, and 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003) leaked Plame Wilson’s name to six separate journalists (see Before July 14, 2003). The White House is notoriously intolerant of leaks, and pursues real and supposed leakers with vigor. Wilson says that if the White House did indeed leak his wife’s name, then the leak was part of what he calls “a deliberate attempt on the part of the White House to intimidate others and make them think twice about coming forward.” [Washington Post, 9/28/2003]
White House, Democrats Respond - National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says that the White House is willing to have the Justice Department investigate the charges. “I know nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate,” she tells Fox News. “My understanding is that in matters like this, a question like this is referred to the Justice Department for appropriate action and that’s what is going to be done.” However, some Democrats want more. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) says the Justice Department should appoint a special counsel to investigate the charges, since the department has an inherent conflict of interest: “I don’t see how it would be possible for the Justice Department to investigate whether a top administration official broke the law and endangered the life of this agent (see July 21, 2003). Even if the department were to do a thorough and comprehensive investigation, the appearance of a conflict could well mar its conclusions.… Leaking the name of a CIA agent is tantamount to putting a gun to that agent’s head. It compromises her safety and the safety of her loved ones, not to mention those in her network of intelligence assets. On top of that, it poses a serious threat to the national security of this nation.” Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) says the White House should find out who is responsible for the leak, and Congress should investigate the matter as well. [Washington Post, 9/28/2003; Fox News, 9/29/2003]
FBI Will Acknowledge Investigation - The FBI officially acknowledges the investigation on September 30 (see September 30, 2003), and informs the White House of the investigation. [New York Times, 2006]

Entity Tags: Richard Gephardt, Karl C. Rove, Richard Armitage, Stephen Gillers, US Department of Justice, Joseph C. Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson, Scott McClellan, John Dion, Robert McCallum, George W. Bush, Charles Schumer, Condoleezza Rice, Bush administration (43), George J. Tenet, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

FBI agents investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak inform Attorney General John Ashcroft that they believe White House political strategist Karl Rove and conservative columnist Robert Novak may be conspiring to hide the truth behind Rove’s involvement in the leak. They also inform Ashcroft that they believe Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has lied to FBI investigators about his role in leaking Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. Although it is unclear who provides this briefing to Ashcroft, he is usually briefed on the status of the investigation by John Dion, the head of the FBI investigation, and Christopher Wray, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. [National Journal, 5/25/2006; National Journal, 6/8/2006]
Novak's Attempt to Protect Rove - They inform Ashcroft of a telephone conversation between Rove and Novak, in which Novak promised to protect Rove from the FBI investigation, presumably by either refusing to disclose him as a source of his knowledge of Plame Wilson’s identity (see September 29, 2003) or lying to investigators. Although Ashcroft receives routine briefings on the status of the FBI investigation, the bureau considers this important enough to warrant a special briefing for him on the matter. The FBI believes that after the conversation with Rove, Novak did indeed change his story about the leak, characterizing White House officials’ role in it as entirely passive. A week after Novak publicly outed Plame Wilson, he told reporters that he didn’t “dig out” the Plame Wilson information, but rather “it was given to me.… They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it” (see July 21, 2003). This account suggests that Rove was actively trying to expose Plame Wilson as a CIA officer, as reporter Murray Waas will later write. But the same day he spoke with Rove, Novak provided a different story, saying no one at the White House gave him the information (see September 29, 2003). Novak’s first story fits more closely with accounts later given by reporters such as Time’s Matthew Cooper (see July 13, 2005) and the New York Times’s Judith Miller (see September 30, 2005). [National Journal, 5/25/2006]
Libby's Lies to FBI - The FBI also informs Ashcroft that it has acquired evidence—personal notes from Libby—that contradicts Libby’s assertions that he learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from journalists (see October 14, 2003). Libby also told investigators that he had merely considered the information about Plame Wilson’s covert CIA status “unsubstantiated rumors” when he leaked that information to reporters (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, and 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003), another lie. [National Journal, 6/8/2006]
Ashcroft Declines to Recuse Himself - Ashcroft will recuse himself from participation in the investigation in December, in part because of the potential of a conflict of interest stemming from his previous relationship with Rove (see December 30, 2003) as well as other White House officials. Some FBI investigators believe that he should have recused himself as soon as he learned that Rove and Libby were possibly involved in the leak; some have also noted privately that many of Ashcroft’s top aides came from the Republican National Committee (RNC), which they suspect has been working closely with the White House to pressure Ashcroft not to name a special prosecutor. In 2006, law professor Stephen Gillers will say: “There is always going to be an interim period during which you decide you will recuse or not recuse. But [Ashcroft] should have had an ‘aha!’ moment when he learned that someone, figuratively, or in this case literally, next door to the president of the United States—who was Ashcroft’s boss—was under suspicion.” Ashcroft’s spokesman Mark Corallo has explained that Ashcroft declined to recuse himself because of his intense interest in the probe. Corallo will later become the spokesman for Rove. Fellow law professor Charles Wolfram, like Gillers a specialist in legal ethics, agrees with Gillers. In 2006, Wolfram says the “most distressing” ethical aspect of the case is that Ashcroft continued overseeing the probe even after Cheney’s name arose. “This should have been a matter of common sense,” Wolfram will note. Ashcroft “should have left it to career prosecutors whether or not to go after politically sensitive targets. You can’t have Ashcroft investigate the people who appointed him or of his own political party.” [National Journal, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Karl C. Rove, Christopher Wray, Charles Wolfram, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Dion, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Mark Corallo, Stephen Gillers, John Ashcroft, Murray Waas, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Robert Novak

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Many legal experts are highly critical of President Bush’s recent declaration that the identity of the leaker of Valerie Plame Wilson’s CIA identity may never be known (see October 7, 2003), and the White House’s declaration that three senior aides—Karl Rove, Lewis Libby, and Elliott Abrams—are not responsible for the leak (see October 4, 2003 and October 5, 2003). They echo criticisms leveled by Senate Democrats, who say that such declarations undermine the investigation into the leak (see October 10, 2003). Not only do such statements call into question the independence of the Justice Department investigation (see September 26, 2003), the experts say, but the propriety of attempting to clear top officials before the investigation has concluded is equally questionable. Law professor Mary Cheh calls such statements “quite irregular” and says that they could have a chilling effect on the investigation. “It will take someone of considerable fortitude [in the Justice Department] to look past such statements” and investigate any of the officials, she notes. Abner Mikva, former White House counsel to President Clinton, says that despite the White House’s assurances that the three officials are innocent: “I would hope that the Justice Department will do whatever it is supposed to do anyway. But does it have a chilling effect? Sure it does.” Defense lawyer Jeralyn Merritt says if Bush claims not to know the identity of the leaker, neither he nor any White House officials can rule out the involvement of any of their personnel. “I think a special counsel would be an excellent idea,” she says. Law professor Stephen Gillers says White House press secretary Scott McClellan has no way to know if any of the three officials are innocent or guilty. If any of them are guilty, Gillers notes, they can be expected to go to great lengths to keep their participation secret. Gillers also says that Bush appears to be soft-pedaling the investigation by publicly doubting its effectiveness, even if most leak investigations do not yield the name of the leaker. Cheh says the only way the Justice Department can conduct a fair and independent investigation is if the White House ensures that the investigators are “walled off” from political considerations. [Chicago Tribune, 10/10/2003]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Elliott Abrams, Abner Mikva, George W. Bush, Karl C. Rove, Scott McClellan, Jeralyn Merritt, Valerie Plame Wilson, Stephen Gillers, US Department of Justice, Mary Cheh

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Karl Rove (right) and his lawyer, Robert Luskin.Karl Rove (right) and his lawyer, Robert Luskin. [Source: Doug Mills / The New York Times]White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove testifies for a fourth time before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see December 30, 2003). [Washington Post, 10/15/2005; Washington Post, 7/3/2007] Rove amends and clarifies his earlier testimony, most notably his failure to remember outing Plame Wilson to Time reporter Matthew Cooper (see 11:00 a.m. July 11, 2003). Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spends a large portion of Rove’s session focusing on the omission. In earlier testimony, Rove attempted to claim that he had only a “hazy recollection” of hearing Plame Wilson’s name (see October 15, 2004) before reading Robert Novak’s column which publicly outed her as a CIA agent (see July 14, 2003). He now testifies that he informed Cooper of her status as a CIA agent days before the article appeared, and his memory apparently failed him during his earlier statements to the grand jury. Rove testifies that his recollection was prompted by the discovery of an e-mail message to Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, that he wrote after talking to Cooper (see March 1, 2004). [National Journal, 10/7/2005; New York Times, 10/15/2005] He insists that he never identified Plame Wilson by her name, but “merely” as the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, and did not intentionally reveal her as a covert CIA official because he did not know of her clandestine status. [Washington Post, 10/15/2005] He says he may have learned of Plame Wilson’s CIA identity from fellow White House official Lewis Libby, and says that both he and Libby learned of her CIA employment status from reporters. He says someone else outside the White House also told him of Plame Wilson’s identity, but he cannot remember who that was. [Washington Post, 10/20/2005] Previously, Rove insisted that he learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from reporters, and not the other way around, as many reporters and others have already testified. Rove has said that one of the reporters who told him that Plame Wilson was a CIA official was Novak, a statement Novak has contradicted (see October 7, 2003, February 5, 2004, and September 14, 2004). Rove also testified that he never told Cooper Plame Wilson’s name, but merely identified her as the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson. [Associated Press, 7/15/2005]
Rove's Testimony No Distraction, White House Officials Claim - White House spokesman Scott McClellan says Rove’s testimony has not distracted the administration from its usual affairs: “[W]hile there are other things going on, the White House doesn’t have time to let those things distract from the important work at hand.” [New York Times, 10/15/2005] White House chief of staff Andrew Card concurs. “Well, obviously we’re all human beings and we know that there are external activities that impact the environment you’re working in,” he says. “It is something that is there, but it is something that we don’t talk about because it would be inappropriate.… I haven’t found anyone that is distracted because of the ongoing investigation, but we all know that it’s taking place and we’re all working to cooperate with the investigators.” [Washington Post, 10/15/2005]
Lawyer: Rove 'Always Honest' with FBI, Jury, President - Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, says that his client “has always attempted to be honest and fully forthcoming” to anyone “he has spoken to about this matter, whether that be the special prosecutor or the president of the United States. My client would not hide anything, because he has nothing to hide. It would not be to his benefit to do so.” Previously, Rove had failed to disclose his discussion with Cooper to either the FBI or to President Bush (see After September 26, 2003). [National Journal, 10/7/2005] “The special counsel has not advised Mr. Rove that he is a target of the investigation and affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges.” [Washington Post, 10/15/2005]
Fitzgerald Mulling Criminal Charges against Rove - Sources close to the Fitzgerald investigation say Rove’s statements to Bush and to the FBI are at the heart of the decision whether or not to charge him with making false statements to investigators, or with obstruction of justice. Lying to the president could in itself be worthy of charges. Law professor Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor and assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration, says: “The president is the top law enforcement official of the executive branch. It is a crime to make a false statement to a federal agent. If the president was asking in that capacity, and the statement was purposely false, then you might have a violation of law.” However, if Bush had discussed the matter with Rove in a more informal capacity, then, Little says, a case for making false statements to a federal agent would be more difficult to prove. Law professor Randall Eliason says that if Rove deliberately lied to the president, a prosecutor could construe the lie as an “overt act… in furtherance of a criminal plan.” Law professor Stephen Gillers notes: “Misleading the president, other officials of the executive branch, or even the FBI might not, in and of themselves, constitute criminal acts. But a prosecutor investigating other crimes—such as obstruction of justice or perjury—might use evidence of any such deception to establish criminal intent. And a lack of candor might also negate a claim of good faith or inadvertent error in providing misleading information to prosecutors.” [National Journal, 10/7/2005]

Entity Tags: Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Joseph C. Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson, Bush administration (43), Karl C. Rove, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Stephen J. Hadley, Andrew Card, Scott McClellan, Randall Eliason, Stephen Gillers, Matthew Cooper, Robert Luskin, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Rory Little, Robert Novak

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, political activist Virginia Thomas.Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, political activist Virginia Thomas. [Source: Associated Press]In November 2009, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a former Republican campaign operative and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, establishes a new “tea party” organization she calls Liberty Central. (Some media sources claim that Liberty Central begins operations in January 2010.) She describes the group as intended to bridge the gap between the conservative Republican establishment and the anti-government tea party movement. “I am an ordinary citizen from Omaha, Nebraska, who just may have the chance to preserve liberty along with you and other people like you,” she says at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) discussion with tea party leaders in Washington. “I adore all the new citizen patriots who are rising up across this country. I have felt called to the front lines with you, with my fellow citizens, to preserve what made America great.” She also says she started the group because of her reaction to what she calls President Obama’s “hard-left agenda.” The group also intends to work to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats, and provide political strategies and “talking points” for conservative candidates. [Los Angeles Times, 3/14/2010; Commission, 7/1/2010; Politico, 7/6/2010; Politico, 2/4/2011] In May 2010, the organization officially declares itself open for business, launching a $27,000 Web site, and touting partnerships with a number of prominent conservative groups and the backing of prominent conservatives such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Federalist Society executive Leonard Leo, whom Justice Thomas has called “my good friend.” [Politico, 7/6/2010]
Questions of Conflict of Interest, Ethics - Almost immediately, legal ethicists assert that Virginia Thomas’s role as the head of a partisan, openly political advocacy organization could taint her husband’s impartiality, especially in light of the Citizens United Court decision, in which her husband sided with the 5-4 majority (see January 21, 2010), that allows her group to accept donations and spend them without publicly disclosing information about them. The group could have benefited from the Court’s decision, and Justice Thomas’s decision could be seen as being influenced by his wife’s decision to start the group. Law school professor Lucas A. “Scot” Powe, a Court historian, says, “I think the American public expects the justices to be out of politics.” The expectations for spouses are not so clear, he adds, saying, “I really don’t know because we’ve never seen it.” Legal ethicist Stephen Gillers, another law professor, says, “We expect the justice to make decisions uninfluenced by the political or legal preferences of his or her spouse.” Moreover, the press learns that while the Court was deliberating the Citizens United case, Liberty Central received an anonymous $550,000 donation. Government watchdog organization Common Cause wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking if Justice Thomas should recuse himself from the case, and wrote that “the complete lack of transparency of Liberty Central’s finances makes it difficult to assess the full scope of the ethics issues raised by Ms. Thomas’s role in founding and leading the group.” (The media later learns that $500,000 of the anonymous $550,000 donation for the organization comes from Dallas real estate investor Harlan Crow, who also hosts a fundraising event for the organization at his home. Crow once gave Justice Thomas a $19,000 “Frederick Douglass Bible” as a gift, and donated $150,000 to build a new wing named for Justice Thomas on a Savannah, Georgia, library that he visited frequently in his youth.) Common Cause also notes that Justice Thomas had failed to report on his financial disclosure filings his wife’s income over the last 13 years, prompting him to file amendments to the filings that indicated the sources, but not the amounts, of his wife’s income. Justice Thomas refuses to recuse himself from the case.
Period of Success - Liberty Central flourishes for a brief time, with Virginia Thomas assembling a veteran staff and forging relationships with conservative donors, with most of whom she and her husband had long, close relationships. Carl Graham of the Montana Policy Institute, one of the over 30 state and national tea party groups that are listed as partners in Liberty Central’s affiliate network, says, “Her association with Justice Thomas clearly provides a level of credibility that others wouldn’t be able to have, just because of the beliefs that he has and the stands that he has on the different positions that align with our own.” Liberty Central’s connection with Justice Thomas, Graham says, “gets you to open the email, if nothing else, as opposed to some other one that you may not even open.” Liberty Central hires the services of CRC Public Relations, a prominent Washington communications firm that has garnered some $15 million in fees from a number of clients, including top Republican Party committees and the presidential campaigns or political committees of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, among others. Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, a tea party lobbying organization also partnered with Liberty Central (see April 14, 2009 and April 15, 2009), says, “Ginni was able to raise the seed capital to have a real launch” because of her connections in small-government conservative circles. Kibbe says most people are unaware that she is the wife of a Supreme Court justice. Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin calls Thomas a “mentor” for many tea party organizations, and says she helps these organizations “to navigate some of the waters in DC.… She’s been kind of a mentor, and when we had questions about things that we were doing, we bounced a few of the ideas off of her and also off of a few other people in DC just to make sure that what we were doing made sense.” [Los Angeles Times, 3/14/2010; Politico, 7/6/2010; Politico, 2/4/2011]
Media Attention - In a June 2010 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Thomas says she is sure “liberals” will “persecute” her just as she says they did when her husband was undergoing confirmation for the Supreme Court. “They’re after me now sometimes,” she says. “And so, we’re not going to be dissuaded. We are in the fight for our country’s life.” She and Hannity engage in a lively conversation about the “tyranny” of the Obama administration. She also promises to “watch for conflicts” between herself and her husband. In October 2010, the media reports that Virginia Thomas leaves a voice mail for former college professor Anita Hill, who accused her husband of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings for the Court (see October 8, 1991, October 8-12, 1991, and October 11-12, 1991), demanding that Hill issue an apology to her husband. The voice mail says: “Good morning, Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just want to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometimes and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought and certainly pray about this and come to understand why you did what you did. Okay, have a good day.” The attention from the voice mail prompts more negative media attention, and some donors begin distancing themselves from the organization. (Virginia Thomas later admits that her voice mail message for Hill was “probably a mistake,” though she will call the media’s response to it “laughable.” She will call the message “an olive branch” she extends to Hill. For her part, Hill says: “I don’t apologize. I have no intention of apologizing and I stand by my testimony in 1991.”) [Los Angeles Times, 3/14/2010; Fox News, 6/8/2010; Politico, 7/6/2010; Politico, 10/19/2010; Washington Post, 11/15/2010]
Thomas Steps Down, Group Merges with Another Organization - In November 2010, Virginia Thomas steps down from her leadership post at Liberty Central. The group then merges with another, similar group called the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, an organization founded by ex-CIA agent Gary Aldrich, who wrote a largely discredited book “exposing” the “secrets” of the Clinton administration. Sources later tell reporters that Virginia Thomas sells off Liberty Central because it cannot raise the funds needed to support its large staff and high overhead. According to CRC spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll, Thomas will “take a back seat so that Liberty Central can continue with its mission without any of the distractions. After discussing it with the board, Mrs. Thomas determined that it was best for the organization.” However, Sarah E. Field, general counsel of Liberty Central, disagrees, saying: “There are many opportunities being presented to Liberty Central, but there is no agreement at this time.… The sources of this story appear to be people without full understanding of the facts.” Keith Appell of CRC tells a reporter that the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner “breached confidentiality” by reporting her conversation with Carroll. Gardner responds, “Everything I attributed to Caitlin Carroll comes from an on-the-record conversation we had by telephone this morning.” Within hours, Thomas files incorporation papers for a new political lobbying and consulting firm, Liberty Consulting (see February 4, 2011). [Politico, 7/6/2010; Politico, 11/15/2010; Washington Post, 11/15/2010; Politico, 2/4/2011]

Entity Tags: Lucas A. (“Scot”) Powe, Liberty Central, US Department of Justice, Matt Kibbe, Leonard Leo, Obama administration, US Supreme Court, Sean Hannity, Virginia (“Ginni”) Thomas, Keith Appell, Stephen Gillers, Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, Jenny Beth Martin, Sarah E. Field, Gary Aldrich, Barack Obama, Anita Hill, Amy Gardner, CRC Public Relations, Caitlin Carroll, Harlan Crow, Clarence Thomas, FreedomWorks, Carl Graham, Donald Rumsfeld, Common Cause, Conservative Political Action Conference

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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