By PETE YOST
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Time magazine's Matthew Cooper says a 2003 phone call with White House political adviser Karl Rove was the first he heard about the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson apparently working for the CIA.
Giving a first-person account of his role in a case that nearly landed him in jail, the reporter recalled that Rove told him, ``I've already said too much'' after revealing that the wife of the former ambassador apparently was with the CIA.
Cooper speculated in the piece, released Sunday, that Rove could have been ``worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else.''
``I don't know, but that signoff has been in my memory for two years,'' Cooper wrote. The White House and Rove's lawyer have stressed that Rove never mentioned Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife, by name.
At issue in a federal grand jury investigation into whether someone in the Bush administration violated a federal statute by publicly disclosing the identity of Plame as a CIA operative.
Cooper said the 2003 phone call with Rove was the first time he had heard anything about Wilson's wife.
The White House had insisted for nearly two years that neither Rove nor Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, had any connection with the leak of Plame's name. For the last two weeks, however, it has steadfastly declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing Fitzgerald probe.
It took the same tack Sunday, as spokesman David Almacy declined specifically to comment about Libby, citing an independent counsel's ongoing investigation of the case.
Writing an account of a conversation he had with Libby, Cooper said, ``Libby replied, 'Yeah, I've heard that too' or words to that effect'' when he asked if Libby had heard anything about Wilson's wife sending her husband to Africa to investigate the possible sale of uranium to Iraq for nuclear weapons.
As part of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's criminal probe of the identity leak, Cooper testified about his conversation with Libby in a deposition at his lawyer's office in August 2004. Libby, as Rove did this month, provided a specific waiver of confidentiality. In a grand jury appearance last Wednesday, Cooper gave his account of what Rove told him.
Cooper also said there may have been other government officials who were sources for his article. Time posted ``A War on Wilson?'' on its Web site on July 17, 2003.
In an effort to quell a chorus of calls to fire Rove, Republicans said Sunday that he first learned about Plame's identity from the news media.
``The information exonerates and vindicates, it does not implicate'' Rove, Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman said on NBC's ``Meet the Press.'' ``Folks involved in this, frankly, owe Karl Rove an apology.''
There were no takers.
The White House's assurance in 2003 that Rove was not involved in the leak of the CIA officer's identity ``was a lie'' and Rove's credibility ``is in shreds,'' said John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
It is unclear whether a journalist first revealed the information to Rove, as Mehlman said.
A lawyer familiar with Rove's grand jury testimony said Rove learned about the CIA officer either from the media or from someone in government who said the information came from a journalist. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity because the federal investigation is continuing.
Appearing on CBS' ``Face the Nation,'' Wilson said, ``I believe that using the West Wing of the White House to be engaged in a smear campaign is an outrageous abuse of power.''
The CIA sent Wilson to check out intelligence that the government of Niger had a deal for the sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson did not find that such a deal took place.
Five days before Cooper's conversation with Rove, an op-ed piece by Wilson had appeared in The New York Times suggesting the Bush administration had manipulated prewar intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the idea that Rove was involved in leaking information about Wilson's wife was ``ridiculous.''
``There's no evidence that (Rove has) done anything criminally wrong,'' Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS. He said the American people are taking the controversy ``for what it is - politics.''