Video: Cooper plays Hardball

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updated 10/21/2005 11:38:52 AM ET 2005-10-21T15:38:52

'Time' magazine reporter Matt Cooper is one of the journalists in the middle of the investigation into who outed covert CIA operative Valerie Wilson.  In July, Cooper testified before the grand jury that Karl Rove told him that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA on WMD issues, and that she was responsible for sending her husband to Niger. 

On Thursday, he joined MSNBC's Chris Matthews on 'Hardball' to discuss the latest in the case.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: I want you to correct what I said, because  ... I thought that Karl (Rove) was your second source.  He was your first source? 

MATTHEW COOPER, "TIME":  He was the first Chris.  You know, I didn't know Joe Wilson had a wife before I talked to Karl Rove.  And he, you know, said that Joe Wilson had a wife who worked at the agency and was involved in dispatching him to Africa. 

MATTHEWS:  What he was pushing? 

COOPER:  Well, as I recounted in "Time" magazine after I did my grand jury testimony, he was trying to get me not to lionize Wilson.  You know, there was a lot of Lionizing of Wilson going on that week and his aim in the conversation was to kind of wave me off.  He said don't get too far out on Wilson.  So I'm not sure he was so much planting as deterring. 

MATTHEWS:  Was this a big fight going on between the CIA and the vice president's office? 

COOPER:  Yes, and more between the entire White House.  You know, I think just as the background, as you know, Chris, to Watergate was the FBI versus the White House.  The background to this war I think is really the CIA verses the White House.  But the CIA in its trenches had a lot of doubters about this whole question of going to war in Iraq and WMD, and the White House is pushing it and that is kind of your backdrop against which all this plays out. 

MATTHEWS:  When you watch this, because you had the advantage of having direct conversations with Karl Rove about this, and because of way that he finally gave you a release of your confidentiality, you put it in print.  You've talked about it on the air.  Where is this going?  You must have a clear sense ...

COOPER:  You know, I don't.  I'm like the blind man with the elephant.  I mean, I feel the tremor.

MATTHEWS:  Are you surprised at this AP report we just reported on ... pointing out that Karl Rove is saying that he heard about it from Scooter Libby? 

COOPER:  I can't say I'm shocked.  There have been all kinds of different reports.  First there were reports Karl Rove was saying that he'd heard about it from reporters, and then I've seen other kinds of reports.  So it wouldn't surprise me at all that, you know, those two guys would be talking during that week.  I mean, that makes sense. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you get the sense, or can you report more directly when you talked to Karl Rove that when he dished the story to you about Joe Wilson going on the trip, did he said Joe Wilson was sent on the trip by his wife?  He got the gig?

COOPER:  Well, that was -- yes, that was suggested, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And did you get a sense that that was part of a campaign by the White House to try to denigrate Wilson's credibility? 

COOPER:  Yes, you've got to remember.  This week, the White House -- back in July '03, the White House did something it never does, Chris.  It admitted a mistake.  It said those words shouldn't have been in the speech. 

MATTHEWS:  That was Ari Fleischer and also Steve Hadley took the hit. 

COOPER:  Yes, and by the end of the week (George) Tenet took the hit and said it shouldn't have been in the State of the Union speech.  So the White House on the one hand -- and this is what fascinated me at the time.  I was new to the Bush White House beat.  On one hand, they were acknowledging Wilson's central claim that this stuff shouldn't have been in the State of the Union.  At the same time, they were kind of quietly dissing him and that's what fascinated me that week. 

MATTHEWS:  What did you learn from Judy's piece in the "New York Times"? 

COOPER:  I thought it was fascinating.  I guess like a lot of people, I found it a little confusing, both the main piece and Judy's piece in terms of the circumstances of the waiver and then some of the meetings and I hope the "Times" will offer some elaboration. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about what was going on at the time.  So that everybody understands, almost like Chinese boxers.  We went to war with Iraq.  There was a case made for the war with Iraq, and most people said OK, I guess we have to fight them in the end because of the threat of nuclear because that's the bomb.  That's the mushroom cloud.

COOPER:  That was the strongest argument. 

MATTHEWS:  That was the best deal maker they had, right? 

COOPER:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Then, of course, we got in there.  We found none of the weapons.

COOPER:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  The next stage was this sort of battle in the papers everyday.  Usually "The Washington Post" for example, banging the vice president's office every day with new stories  ... banging the vice president's office and the whole case for war. 

COOPER:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you see the attempt to denigrate or smear Joe Wilson by outing his wife as a way of sort of backlash, back fighting from the president's office, the White House at the CIA for what it was doing? 

COOPER:  I think it was.  You know, you have been in politics, Chris.  You know.  I mean, you wake up in the morning, you see an op-ed or before that you hear whispers of a former ambassador dissing your guy and you wake up and you think who is this guy.

MATTHEWS:  And it's your job to defend him.

COOPER:  And it's your job to push back and, you know, that's part of politics.

MATTHEWS:  Did you have any sense when you were talking to Karl Rove or you were writing down notes from Karl Rove as he was telling you about this guy Joe Wilson's wife in Africa -- did you have a sense he was breaking the law when he was talking to you? 

COOPER:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you think he did?  He didn't surmise that.

COOPER:  I didn't at the time.  I had no sense at the time that what I in fact I would not have fired off an e-mail to my colleagues which later got divulged talking about all this because I had no sense that anything criminal had happened.  I thought it was maybe a little, you know, sort of unseemly that they were dissing the guy but I didn't think there was anything illegal at the time.  Now, you know, the special prosecutor will have to sort out if there was. 

MATTHEWS:  I think you could be right, and that makes sense.  Why else would he dishing to you.  You're not his best friend.  Why would he be trusting you to keep his name secret?  Here is the thing.  When you mark that thing super-duper secret -- whatever you -- what did you call it?

COOPER:  Double super secret.

MATTHEWS:  Why did you go that far in telling your editors this was really to be kept secret within your level relationship with your editor?

COOPER:  Well, he used the phrase deep background ... he would ask for that degree of confidence.  And so I was trying to accommodate him. 

MATTHEWS:  So, it wasn't the usual conversation we have in Washington for people who don't usually have conversation with the press.  You know, when I worked in politics I'd say, are we on background?  It wasn't that casual.  It was like he really said to you, this is really -- you have got to keep this.

COOPER:  He used the phrase deep background. 

MATTHEWS:  Which means you can't identify with the White House ...

COOPER:  Yeah.  That's how I took it to mean.

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  Apparently, somebody didn't use that with Bob Novak because he said administration officials, that's not very deep.  I mean, he wanted to cite somebody in power when he wrote that piece and nail her.   What do you make of that? 

COOPER:  Well ... Bob Novak and I wrote very different pieces at the time.  He was kind of a transmission belt for the leakers.  I wrote a piece that pushed back and said, "A War On Wilson?" was the name of my piece, That's what fascinated me that week.  But there seemed to be a quiet campaign going on to diss the guy. 

MATTHEWS:  That's the one parallel to Watergate, I think.  That whatever the degree of importance of this story, it's about how people reacted to an initial 300 degree break in, or whatever you call it.  Did they react in a way that was criminal by accident?  Did they get so angry, did they react with such violence that they could put themselves in deep jeopardy?

COOPER:  Yeah.  I know that Karl told me about Valerie Plame.  Now whether that breaks the law, I don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  Well, we'll find out won't we? ... You know, the reporting you did almost put you in jail for a long time.  And you got the confidentially agreement broken, because as Karl Rove said, go ahead, talk.  What is your sense of why he said that to you?  And why Libby was so slow in saying that to Judy Miller? 

COOPER:  I don't have a good sense of the Miller thing.  With Karl, I guess, you know, in part of his name was starting to get out there.  So that might have been part of it. ... He may have nothing to fear.  He may have basically testified to the nature of our conversation. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, he may have given away the wording, even, of his conversation with you before you did yourself? 

COOPER: Yes.  So I assumed he had a lot to fear.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make about that strange White House communication between Scooter Libby and Judy Miller?  The sort of about the Aspens turning and being clustered at their roots, and all this weird lingo. 

COOPER: Well, I thought it was very strange, and particularly in light of my other reaching out for these waivers, because I called Scooter Libby for a waiver.  And you know, when you do that, you are mindful of the prosecutor looking and seeing perhaps conspiracy where there is none.  So you are careful with your wording and you edit with your lawyers. 

And, you know, it's not an entree that you do casually.  So, I asked my lawyers, would you ever let me write a letter with poems and things like that?  And they say no.  They are very surprised that Libby's lawyer would allow him to write such a note. 

MATTHEWS:  Because everybody in jail is always vulnerable, or rather would have a motive for trying to get secret meetings, secret -- because there they were sort of publicly negotiating her talking. 

COOPER:  Well, it may all be perfectly innocent, we don't know.  But just the fact that it was open to interpretation is itself sort of strange lawyering, I think. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you talked to Judy? 

COOPER:  Well, I have not talked to her like she has been out.  Like you, I visited her in jail.  Now, I tell you, you must have had the experience I had going into that prison in Alexandria.  And everybody thinks, oh, it's a white collar crime, it's an upper middle class, you know, reporter.  She will be treated differently.  She'll have her own room. 

I'm telling you, when you go in there, you touch had the glass and she touches it like in one of those old romance things just to have some kind of contact with the person.  And she's skinny as a rail, wearing one of those death row matrons costumes.  And you know, she's eating whatever.  And she in the middle of a lot of tough people in there.   

Yeah.  No, this was not a minimum security facility with a campus and fresh air. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  There was no tennis court. 

COOPER:  No.  This was really, really tough.

MATTHEWS:  Did you think when you saw that life? 

COOPER:  I thought it was very hurting.  And I thought she would find a way not to have to be in there much longer. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, she finally did.   And let me ask you.  And the end of this whole thing, because you are a principle in this, are you going to write a book about this? 

COOPER:  You know, I have been approached.  We'll see.  Maybe. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think this is a big story, a category 5 or category 2? 

COOPER:  I don't know, Chris?  You know, it's like the hurricane keeps changing.  One day, you turn on the TV, it's a one, then it's a five, then it's back to a two.  You know, who knows? 

MATTHEWS:  I think it's a five.  Have you had a chance to talk to Scooter Libby at all, since? 

COOPER:  I haven't talked to him.

MATTHEWS:  Have you talked to Karl Rove? 

COOPER:  I haven't talked to him lately. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you got feeling from your contacts at the White House that they recognize that you were telling the truth? 

COOPER:  Yes.  I think people know that, you know, I have no reason to dissemble on this.  And I've been as transparent as I can be throughout the process, sure. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they have a plan laying in waiting?  A plan B if there are indictments to blame the media? 

COOPER:  Well, you know.  I'm sure you go through different scenarios.  But, you know, I don't know. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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