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Rove Assured Bush He Was Not Leaker
By Murray Waas, Washington-based journalist, for National Journal
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove personally assured President Bush in the early fall of 2003 that he had not disclosed to anyone in the press that Valerie Plame, the wife of an administration critic, was a CIA employee, according to legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the accounts that both Rove and Bush independently provided to federal prosecutors.
If Rove purposely misled the president, the FBI, or the White House press secretary, a reasonable prosecutor might construe such acts as 'overt acts in furtherance of a criminal plan.'
During the same conversation in the White House two years ago-occurring just days after the Justice Department launched a criminal probe into the unmasking of Plame as a covert agency operative-Rove also assured the president that he had not leaked any information to the media in an effort to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson. Rove also did not tell the president about his July 2003 a phone call with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, a conversation that touched on the issue of Wilson and Plame.
But some 22 months later, Cooper's testimony to the federal grand jury investigating the Plame leak has directly contradicted Rove's assertions to the president. Cooper has testified that Rove was the person who first told him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, although Rove did not name her. Cooper has also testified that Rove told him that Plame helped arrange for Wilson to make a fact-finding trip for the CIA to the African nation of Niger to investigate allegations that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium with which to build a nuclear bomb.
In his first interview with FBI agents working on the leak probe, Rove similarly did not disclose that he had spoken to Cooper, according to sources close to the investigation,
But in subsequent interviews with federal investigators and in his testimony to the grand jury, Rove changed his account, asserting that when the FBI first questioned him, he had simply forgotten about his phone conversation with Cooper. Rove also told prosecutors that he had forgotten about the Cooper conversation when he talked to the president about the matter in the fall of 2003.
In his own interview with prosecutors on June 24, 2004, Bush testified that Rove assured him he had not disclosed Plame as a CIA employee and had said nothing to the press to discredit Wilson, according to sources familiar with the president's interview. Bush said that Rove never mentioned the conversation with Cooper. James E. Sharp, Bush's private attorney, who was present at the president's interview with prosecutors, declined to comment for this story.
Sources close to the leak investigation being run by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald say it was the discovery of one of Rove's White House e-mails-in which the senior Bush adviser referred to his July 2003 conversation with Cooper-that prompted Rove to contact prosecutors and to revise his account to include the Cooper conversation.
The new disclosures concerning Rove's personal assurances to the president about Plame arise as Fitzgerald is concluding his investigation and the federal grand jury is making final decisions on whether to bring charges against Rove; against I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney; or against others, in regard to the disclosure of Plame's covert status at the CIA.
Rove on Thursday agreed to appear a fourth time before the federal grand jury, as federal prosecutors warned him that they could not guarantee that he would not be criminally charged, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
According to outside legal experts, it is rare for prosecutors to seek to question a witness before the grand jury so late in the course of a high-profile investigation and after the witness has already testified three times, unless criminal charges are being considered.
Sources close to the Fitzgerald investigation say that Rove's personal assurances to the president and his initial interview with the FBI are central to whether the grand jury might charge Rove with making false statements to investigators or with obstruction of justice.
Robert Luskin, an attorney for Rove, said in response to questions for this story 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."
Luskin also asserted that any misstatements that his client might have made to the president, the FBI, or other public officials, were not purposeful and were due to incomplete records and faulty memories.
Luskin said that Rove welcomed another opportunity to "set the record straight" by appearing before the federal grand jury again, and that Fitzgerald has assured him that the prosecutor has "made no charging decision" related to his client. Luskin said that Rove had volunteered to return to the grand jury, in part, as a result of Cooper's testimony.
Rove did not disclose his conversation with Cooper to White House press secretary Scott McClellan and other administration communications staffers when they were preparing answers to anticipated press inquiries about the Plame leak, according to current and former administration officials, as well as White House records turned over to federal investigators.
As a result, McClellan mistakenly told a White House press briefing on September 29, 2003, that it was "simply not true" that Rove was involved in any way in the Plame leak. McClellan also forcefully asserted that anyone caught leaking classified information "would no longer be in this administration."
McClellan later told reporters that he had personally asked both Rove and Libby whether they had played a role in leaking information about Plame to reporters, "so I could come back to you [the press] and say they were not involved." Asked whether his statement was a categorical denial of any role by either Rove or Libby, McClellan told the press: "That is correct."
The Plame controversy had an inauspicious beginning:
On July 6, 2003, The New York Times published Wilson's op-ed piece charging that the Bush administration-looking to bolster its case for going to war against Iraq-misrepresented the intelligence information he had collected on the Niger mission. After the article appeared, Rove and Libby led a White House damage-control effort to counter Wilson's allegations.
It was during that damage-control effort in the summer of 2003 that Robert Novak named Plame as a CIA operative in a July 14 newspaper column. During Justice's subsequent leak probe-which eventually Fitzgerald took over-Rove and Libby told investigators that as part of the damage-control effort, they told journalists that Plame had played a role in having Wilson sent on the Niger mission. Both Rove and Libby have denied, however, that they knew at the time that Plame was a covert CIA operative.
According to both Rove's and Novak's accounts to investigators, on July 9, three days after Wilson's column appeared, the White House aide and the columnist had a conversation about Plame. After the two discussed an unrelated topic, Novak told Rove that he had heard that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, and that she might have been responsible for having her husband sent to Niger.
"I heard that too," Rove said to Novak, according to Rove's account to investigators as well as to various published accounts.
Novak has told investigators much the same story, according to those same accounts. In Novak's version, however, when Novak asked Rove whether he knew that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, Rove responded: "Oh, you know about it."
In his column, Novak called Plame an "agency operative," thus identifying her as a covert agent. But Novak has since claimed that his use of the phrase "agency operative" was his own formulation, and that he did not know, or mean to tell his readers, that she had covert status in the agency. Rove has told federal investigators that when he talked to both Cooper and Novak about Plame in July 2003, he did not know she had covert status.
Whether Rove knew of Plame's status at the time has been central to Fitzgerald's investigation. By law, a government official can be prosecuted only if he or she knew of a person's covert status and if "the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent."
Then there is the matter of the source-reporter relationship between Rove and Novak. Rove, in giving his assurances to the president in the fall of 2003, did not say he had served as a corroborating source for Novak's column about Plame.
Sources close to Rove say he simply did not know at the time that Novak had used him to corroborate the Plame information published in the July 14 column. Rove did not discover that until after his initial interview with the FBI, sources say.
Indeed, Rove's story to investigators was that when he said to Novak in July 2003, "I heard that, too," he was essentially telling Novak that he had heard the same information through the grapevine. Rove said he thought the information about Plame was hearsay and speculation, and that he was surprised to later learn that Novak had considered him one of two administration sources for his column.
A person close to Rove and familiar with his account said in an interview: "There was nothing about the context in which he was asked, or the substance of the conversation itself, that would have led Karl to believe that he was confirming-or even being asked to confirm-anything for the column."
In part because of the brevity of his comments to Novak and his lack of first-hand knowledge of the allegations about Plame, Rove did not know that he was one of the two administration sources cited in the column, the source close to Rove said.
Geneva Overholser, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, and former editor of The Des Moines Register, said in an interview that if the press accounts of what Rove told Novak are correct, "it would have been more than fair for Rove to deny to the president that he was the source."
Rove has told federal investigators that he first learned that Plame worked for the CIA from a journalist, though he could not recall the name of the journalist. Rove also told investigators he could not recall whether he had spoken to the journalist in person or over the telephone.
What is clear is that two days after he spoke with Novak in July 2003, Rove talked with Cooper of Time. And concerning this conversation-in sharp contrast to the conversation with Novak-Rove appeared more certain of what he asserted about Plame and Wilson, according to Cooper's account to Fitzgerald's grand jury.
Shortly after speaking to Cooper on July 11, Rove sent an e-mail to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley documenting the conversation. At the time, Hadley was also playing a central role in the damage-control effort.
"Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming," Rove wrote in the e-mail to Hadley, sent shortly before noon on July 11.
The e-mail continued: "When he finished his heads-up, he immediately launched into his Niger/ isn't this damaging?/ Hasn't the President been hurt? I didn't take the bait, but said, if I were him I wouldn't get that far out in front of this."
Rove later explained to investigators that he took Cooper's phone call believing that Cooper was working on a story regarding welfare reform. The words in the e-mail -- "Niger," "Isn't this damaging?" and "Hasn't the President been hurt?" -- were all references to the potential political fallout from Wilson's allegations, Rove said. And Rove told prosecutors that his comment to Cooper, "If I were him I wouldn't get that far out in front of this," simply reflected that he was urging Cooper to use caution in relying on Wilson as a potential source.
After his grand jury testimony earlier this year, Cooper wrote in Time that it was "through my conversation with Rove that I learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and may have been responsible for sending him" to Niger. Cooper also wrote, "Rove never once indicated to me that she had any kind of covert status."
Cooper wrote that after talking to Rove in July 2003, he talked to Libby and asked whether he had heard anything about Wilson's wife sending him to Niger. Cooper wrote: "Libby replied, 'Yeah, I've heard that too,' or words to that effect." Like Rove, according to Cooper, Libby said nothing to indicate that Plame had covert status at the CIA.
Three days after Cooper's conversations with Rove and Libby, Novak wrote his column identifying Plame as an agency operative and reporting that she had allegedly played a role in selecting her husband for the Niger trip. Although little-noticed at the time, the column would lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor, place the president's most powerful senior adviser in legal jeopardy, and cause a New York Times reporter to go to jail for more than eighty days for refusing to talk about her confidential sources.
Novak's column prompted Time to post its own story online on July 17, 2003. "Some government officials have noted to Time in interviews," said the article co-authored by Cooper, "that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband being dispatched to Niger."
With New York Times reporter Judith Miller having now testified to the grand jury, and with Rove about to testify again, Fitzgerald is winding down his investigation and making crucial decisions on whether to bring criminal charges.
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, says that Rove's being called before the grand jury a fourth time and so late in the inquiry is a strong indication that Fitzgerald is "attempting to tighten up the noose" and is contemplating criminal charges against Rove. Gillers said that if Fitzgerald is "pursuing a potential case for false statements, perjury, or obstruction, every time Rove speaks at this point, he is taking a risk. For better or worse, he is locked into his previous statements and testimony."
Another potential issue is whether Fitzgerald determines that Rove either purposely or inadvertently lied to the president, experts say. "The president is the top law enforcement official of the executive branch," said Rory Little, a professor of law at the University of California and a former federal prosecutor and associate attorney general in the Clinton administration. "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."
But Little pointed out another possibility. If Bush had asked Rove about Plame in an informal manner-speaking to his adviser as a longtime friend rather than in his official capacity as president-the obstacles to bringing a criminal case under false-statement statutes would be higher, making such a case unlikely.
But Randall Eliason, a former chief of the public corruption section for the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and currently an adjunct law professor at American University, said that if Rove purposely misled the president, the FBI, or the White House press secretary, a reasonable prosecutor might construe such acts as "overt acts in furtherance of a criminal plan."
Added Gillers: "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."