Source says Rove spoke to columnist
By David Johnston and Richard W. Stevenson
THE NEW YORK TIMES
WASHINGTON - Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, spoke with columnist Robert Novak as Novak was preparing an article in July 2003 that identified an undercover CIA officer, someone who has been officially briefed on the matter said Thursday.
Rove has told investigators that he learned from Novak the name of the CIA officer, who was referred to by her maiden name, Valerie Plame, and the circumstances in which her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, traveled to Africa to investigate possible uranium sales to Iraq, the person said.
The person said that after hearing Novak's account, Rove told the columnist, "I heard that, too."
The previously undisclosed telephone conversation, which occurred July 8, 2003, was initiated by Novak, the person who has been briefed on the matter said.
Six days later, Novak's syndicated column reported that two senior administration officials had told him that Wilson's "wife had suggested sending him" to Africa. That column was the first instance in which Plame was publicly identified as a CIA operative. The column provoked angry demands for an investigation into who disclosed her name to Novak.
The Justice Department appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, a top federal prosecutor in Chicago, to lead the inquiry. Rove said in an interview last year that he did not know the CIA officer's name and did not leak it.
The person who provided the information about Rove's conversation with Novak declined to be identified, citing requests by Fitzgerald that no one discuss the case. The person discussed the matter in the belief that Rove was truthful in saying he did not disclose Plame's identity.
In a column on Oct. 1, 2003, Novak described calling two officials. Novak described the first source, who is unknown, as "no partisan gunslinger" who provided the outlines of the story. The second, confirming source, Novak wrote, responded, "Oh, you know about it."
That second source was Rove, the person briefed on the matter said, although Rove's account to investigators about what he told Novak was slightly different. Rove recalled telling Novak, "I heard that, too."
Asked by investigators how he knew enough to leave Novak with the impression that his information was accurate, Rove said he heard portions of the story from other journalists but had not heard Plame's name.
Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, said Thursday, "Any pertinent information has been provided to the prosecutor." Luskin has previously said that prosecutors have advised Rove that he is not a target in the case, which means he is unlikely to be charged with a crime.
In a brief conversation Thursday, Novak declined to discuss the matter.
The conversation between Novak and Rove seemed almost certain to intensify the question about whether one of President Bush's closest political advisers played a role in what appeared to be an effort to undermine Wilson's credibility after he challenged the veracity of Bush's assertion in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein, then leader of Iraq, had sought nuclear fuel in Africa.
The conversation with Novak took place three days before Rove spoke with Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine reporter, whose e-mail message about their conversation reignited the issue. In the message, whose contents were reported by Newsweek this week, Cooper told his editors that Rove had talked about Plame, although not by name.
After saying in 2003 that it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Rove had any role in the disclosure of Plame's name, White House spokesman Scott McClellan has declined in recent days to discuss specifics of the case. But he has suggested that Bush continues to support Rove. On Thursday, Rove was at Bush's side on a trip to Indianapolis.
As the political debate about Rove grows more heated, Fitzgerald is in what he has said are the final stages of his investigation into whether anyone at the White House violated a criminal statute that, under certain circumstances, makes it a crime for a government official to disclose the names of covert operatives like Plame.
The law applies to officials who knowingly identify an officer serving in a covert position. The person who has been briefed on the matter said Rove knew neither Plame's name nor that she was a covert officer.
The revelation of Rove's conversation with Novak raises a question the White House has never addressed: whether Rove ever described that conversation, or his conversation with Cooper, to the president. Bush has said several times that he wants all members of the White House staff to cooperate with Fitzgerald's investigation.
In June 2004 at Sea Island, Ga., soon after Vice President Dick Cheney met with investigators in the case, Bush was asked at a news conference whether he stood by his pledge to fire anyone found to have leaked the agent's name.
"Yes," Bush said. "And that's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts."
White House officials may argue that Rove's conversation with Novak did not amount to leaking the agent's name. But to Bush's critics, including Democrats who have called for Rove's resignation, that is splitting hairs, and Rove in effect confirmed her identity, even if he did not name her.