By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald is wrapping up his investigation into White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's role in the CIA leak case by weighing this central question:
Did Rove, who was deeply involved in defending President Bush's use of prewar intelligence about Iraq, lie about a key conversation with a reporter that was aimed at rebutting a tough White House critic?
Fitzgerald, according to sources close to the case, is reviewing testimony from Rove's five appearances before the grand jury. Bush's top political strategist has argued that he never intentionally misled the grand jury about his role in leaking information about undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame to Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in July 2003. Rove testified that he simply forgot about the conversation when he failed to disclose it to Fitzgerald in his earlier testimony.
Fitzgerald is weighing Rove's foggy-memory defense against evidence he has acquired over nearly 2 1/2 years that shows Rove was very involved in White House efforts to beat back allegations that Bush twisted U.S. intelligence to justify the Iraq war, according to sources involved in the case.
That evidence includes details of a one-week period in July 2003 when Rove talked to two reporters about Plame and her CIA role, then reported the conversations back to high-level White House aides, according to sources in the case and information released by Fitzgerald as part of the ongoing leak investigation.
Additionally, one former government official said he testified that Rove talked with White House colleagues about the political importance of defending the prewar intelligence and countering Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. It was Wilson who accused Bush of twisting intelligence about Iraq's efforts to obtain nuclear material from Africa. The official refused to be named out of fear of angering Fitzgerald and the White House.
Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, responded that "just because Rove was involved in the defense of the White House Iraq policy, it does not follow that he was necessarily involved in some effort to discredit Wilson personally. Nor does it prove that there even was an effort to disclose Plame's identity in order to punish Wilson."
Rove expects to learn as soon as this month if he will be indicted -- or publicly cleared of wrongdoing -- for making false statements in the CIA leak case, according to sources close to the presidential adviser.
An indictment would be devastating to a White House already battered by low poll numbers, a staff shake-up and a stalled agenda. If Rove is cleared, however, it would allow Bush's longtime top aide to resume his central role as White House strategic guru without a legal threat hanging over him.
Fitzgerald began his investigation 2 1/2 years ago, looking into whether any administration officials knowingly disclosed Plame's CIA role as part of an effort to discredit Wilson's allegation. The former diplomat had been sent on a CIA mission to investigate whether Iraq had sought nuclear weapons material from Niger.
Wilson reported back that the charge could not be proved, but Bush nevertheless asserted in his 2003 State of the Union address that intelligence existed that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa. After Wilson went public with his allegation a few months later, an embarrassed White House was forced to concede that the Africa claim was not based on solid enough evidence.
Fitzgerald has not charged anyone for the crime he initially set out to prove. But last October, he indicted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was then Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, for perjury, making false statements and obstruction of justice during the investigation. It is unclear if anyone other than Rove remains under investigation.
Unlike the Libby case, which includes a detailed narrative of the vice presidential aide's alleged efforts to obtain information about Plame and leak it to reporters, Fitzgerald appears to have focused most of his attention on one key question, according to a source close to Rove, who based this assessment on questions asked of the presidential adviser: Did Rove testify falsely in February 2004 when he failed to disclose that he told Time's Cooper about Plame's CIA role seven months earlier?
In testimony offered in subsequent grand jury appearances, Rove essentially argued that he did not recall the conversation with Cooper until a few months after he first testified, when his attorney found a 2003 e-mail Rove had written to then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. In the e-mail, Rove mentioned that he had discussed Wilson with Cooper. The e-mail prompted Rove to tell the grand jury that he apparently did discuss Plame -- though not by name -- with Cooper, according to the source close to Rove.
In his most recent testimony, Rove said he would have been foolish to lie when he first testified and explained how he had been tipped before his first grand jury appearance that Time reporters were openly speculating about his conversation with Cooper. The details of the "tip" are in dispute, however. According to the source close to Rove, his message to the prosecutor was, in essence: Why would he risk lying when he could safely assume that his discussion of Plame with Cooper would soon get out?
Moreover, he has testified, if he really wanted to damage Wilson in the summer of 2003, he would have sought out the many other reporters he knew better and trusted more than Cooper. He argued that he hardly knew Cooper, who had recently started on the White House beat -- one reason the conversation slipped his mind, the source close to Rove said.
To determine whether Rove could simply forget this conversation, Fitzgerald and his investigative team have questioned current and former government officials about Rove's involvement in the 2003 campaign to counter Wilson and defend prewar intelligence.
One former aide, who would discuss internal White House discussion only on the condition of anonymity, said Rove was intimately involved in the prewar intelligence fight and discussed various components of the plan at senior staff meetings and one-on-one strategy conversations.
The aide said Rove's message was that "if there are no WMDs and some blame us, it will not be a pleasant election year." The aide said Rove talked a lot about Wilson that week, but mostly about the fact he was a Democrat and needed to be rebutted.
Luskin, Rove's attorney, said Rove's focus was not on Wilson.
The extent of the evidence Fitzgerald may have gathered is unknown. Randall Samborn, Fitzgerald's spokesman, refused to comment on the investigation or grand jury proceedings.
In the Libby case, Fitzgerald presented previously undisclosed information alleging that Libby had hounded CIA, State Department and other officials for information about Wilson and Plame, then leaked it.
Some White House aides said Cheney and Libby often took the lead rebutting or proving specific charges about Iraq's weapons programs. The White House aide who detailed Rove's involvement in the WMD fight said Rove did not appear as involved as Libby on the Wilson matter.
But, according to evidence compiled by Fitzgerald, Rove was discussing Wilson and/or his wife with two reporters and at least two aides in the week before her identity was revealed.
Evidence made public suggests Rove was particularly involved in rebutting Wilson after the former ambassador wrote a July 6, 2003, New York Times op-ed piece charging that Bush had "twisted" intelligence. Two days later, columnist Robert D. Novak called Rove and told him that he had heard that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and helped arrange his Niger mission.
Rove testified that he told Novak, "I heard that, too," according to a source close to Rove.
A few days later, Rove told Libby about Novak's plan to write a column about Wilson and his wife, according to court filings by Fitzgerald. This is the only evidence to emerge publicly so far of Rove and Libby discussing Wilson's efforts.
Around the same time, Rove took a call from Cooper and reportedly told him Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had authorized the mission. Afterward, Rove e-mailed Hadley to tell him he waved Cooper off Wilson's claim that the administration had misused intelligence on Iraq. This is the e-mail Rove's lawyer would find more than one year later and that Rove would cite as the reason he wanted to change his testimony.
Luskin said Rove was chiefly concerned that week with "assuring that there was a statement from the director of central intelligence that directly addressed the substance of the criticism of Wilson and others."
On July 11, the day Rove talked to Cooper and e-mailed Hadley, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet issued a statement that Bush's Africa claim should not have been made and accepted blame for failing to take it out of the State of the Union speech. Three days later, Novak wrote the now-famous column that unmasked Plame and ultimately sparked Fitzgerald's investigation.
Rove would publicly deny any involvement for the next year. Rove has argued he was upfront with Fitzgerald about his conversation with Novak and therefore was not trying to hide any larger role from investigators.