By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005
White House senior adviser Karl Rove, after telling Time reporter Matthew Cooper in 2003 that the wife of an administration critic worked for the CIA, closed the conversation by noting "I've already said too much," Cooper said yesterday in recounting his testimony before a federal grand jury.
While that comment appeared to indicate the sensitive nature of the conversation, which is now under scrutiny by a special prosecutor investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's name, Rove said nothing about Plame being a covert operative, Cooper said. The conversation took place days after Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, accused the White House of twisting evidence on whether Iraq had been seeking weapons of mass destruction.
Cooper's account, in the new issue of Time magazine, came as Republicans ratcheted up their defense of Rove and criticism of Democrats who have called for his ouster, even as the White House remained firmly in no-comment mode.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said Senate Democrats such as Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.) were "smearing Karl Rove" and urged them to apologize. Citing Cooper's article and others, Mehlman said: "Democrat partisans on the Hill have engaged in a smear campaign where they have attacked Karl Rove on the basis of information which actually vindicates and exonerates him, not implicates him."
On the same program, former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta, pointing to earlier administration denials that Rove was involved in the leaking of Plame's role at the CIA, said that was "a lie" and that Rove's "credibility is in tatters on a very important national security matter." He said that Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, should resign and that, if he doesn't, Bush should "be a man of his word" and fire Rove based on his pledge to dismiss any staff member found to be leaking information on the matter.
Cooper was questioned by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald on Wednesday, agreeing to testify after obtaining a personal waiver of confidentiality from Rove through their attorneys. New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been in jail in Alexandria for nearly two weeks for refusing to testify in the case.
In the Time article, Cooper said Rove had cautioned him: "Don't get too far out on Wilson." He wrote that Rove told him that "Wilson's wife," who worked at the "agency" on "WMD issues," had arranged for Wilson to travel to Niger to investigate since-discredited allegations that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium for nuclear weapons. Of Rove's "said too much" comment, he wrote: "This could have meant he was worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else."
The next day, Cooper said, when he asked Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whether Plame had arranged for her husband's African assignment, Libby replied: "Yeah, I've heard that too."
Although Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said Cooper called Rove to talk about welfare reform and switched topics during the conversation, Cooper said he initially left a message about welfare reform but when he reached the White House aide, they talked only about Wilson.
Fitzgerald asked several times whether Rove had indicated how he knew Plame worked at the CIA; Cooper said he did not. About one-third of the questions, he said, came from the grand jurors, a majority of whom are black and predominantly women.
In a CNN interview, Cooper said Rove's tone "was disparaging toward Wilson." He also said he was "upset" with Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine's decision to turn over his e-mails after losing all legal appeals, which revealed Cooper's sources before he had agreed to testify.
"I really disagreed with it, because I thought we were fighting for an important principle and I thought there would be a lot of fallout from handing over the notes," Cooper said. "And I think events have borne that out."
Part of the Republican defense, as expressed by Mehlman on NBC, is that Rove did not know Plame's name or that she was a covert operative. Mehlman cited a New York Times report that, in his words, "says Karl Rove was not Bob Novak's source, that Novak told Rove, not the other way around. . . . This information at least came to Mr. Rove from journalists, not from a classified source."
But the article said that when syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who was the first to report Plame's name and CIA job in July 2003, mentioned her, Rove replied he had "heard that too," indicating Rove had obtained the information elsewhere.
Mehlman criticized Wilson as being "wrong on numerous fronts" and for posing with his partly obscured wife for a Vanity Fair photo shoot. Wilson, on CBS's "Face the Nation," defended his record and challenged an assertion by House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that "many people in Washington" knew Plame was employed by the CIA, meaning it would not have been a potential violation of federal law to reveal that. Wilson said people believed Plame was working as an energy consultant.
Repeating his call for Rove to be fired, Wilson said that "using the West Wing of the White House to be engaged in a smear campaign is an outrageous abuse of power."
Cooper cleared up one lingering mystery: his description in a memo of his talk with Rove as being on "double super secret background." He said this was "a play on a reference to the film 'Animal House,' in which John Belushi's wild Delta House fraternity is placed on 'double secret probation.' "