The jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller on Wednesday put the issue of press freedom and the confidentiality of sources on front pages across the country, but the heart of the case remains what it has been from the outset: whether senior Bush officials broke the law in the disclosure of a CIA covert operative's identity.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has spent the better part of two years trying to answer that question, in a case that grew out of the angry debate over whether President Bush and his advisers hyped or falsified intelligence about weapons of mass destruction to justify going to war with Iraq in the spring of 2003. At issue is whether administration officials misused classified information to try to discredit one of their potentially most damaging critics.
Now, a fast-moving series of decisions over the past week involving Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper have brought a renewed public focus on what role White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have played in disclosing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
A White House spokesman long ago asserted that Rove was "not involved" in disclosing Plame's identity. Rove, who has testified before a grand jury investigating the case, likewise has maintained that he did not break the law, saying in a television interview, "I didn't know her name, and I didn't leak her name."
But Fitzgerald still appears to want more answers about Rove's role. The prosecutor is apparently focused on Rove's conversations with Cooper.
The debate two summers ago over why the United States went to war engaged some of the most senior officials in the government and included an incendiary accusation by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had challenged the administration over claims that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Africa. Wilson based his claim on information gathered on a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger.
At the height of the fury over Wilson's charges, in a column published July 14, 2003, Robert D. Novak wrote that Wilson was married to Plame, and cited two senior administration officials saying she was behind the decision to send her husband on the trip. The outcry over the revelation eventually forced the administration to turn to Fitzgerald to investigate, with Bush saying he was eager to get to the bottom of the case. The president and a number of top administration officials have since been called to testify.
After Time turned over its documents late last week, Newsweek reported that e-mail records showed that Rove was one of Cooper's sources on Plame and Wilson. That article led Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, to say in an interview last weekend that his client had spoken to Cooper around the time Novak's column appeared in July 2003. But he added that Rove had testified fully in the case and had been assured by Fitzgerald that he is not a target in the investigation.
More evidence points to Rove as the source Cooper was seeking to protect -- although what information was provided is not clear. Rove and Cooper spoke once before the Novak column was available, but the interview did not involve the Iraq controversy, according to a person close to the investigation who declined to be identified to be able to share more details about the case.
Cooper on Wednesday agreed to testify in the case, reversing his long-standing refusal after saying that he had been released from his pledge of confidentiality just hours before he expected to be sent to jail for contempt of court. In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Luskin denied that Cooper had received a call from Rove releasing him from his confidentiality pledge. Yesterday, however, Luskin declined to comment on a New York Times report that the release came as a result of negotiations involving Rove's and Cooper's attorneys, nor would he speculate that Cooper was released from his pledge in some other fashion than a direct conversation with Rove. "I'm not going to comment any further," Luskin said.
The admission that Rove had spoken to Cooper appeared at odds with previous White House statements. In retrospect, however, these statements -- which some interpreted as emphatic denials -- were in fact carefully worded.
On Oct. 10, 2003, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked whether Rove; Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; or National Security Council official Elliott Abrams had told any reporter that Plame was a covert CIA agent.
"I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this," McClellan said. "And that's where it stands." Reporters pressed McClellan to clarify that statement but he held to the words in his first answer until one reporter asked, "They were not involved in what?" To which he replied, "The leaking of classified information."
That left open the other question that comes into play in this episode, which is the degree to which White House officials were engaged two summers ago in a vigorous effort to discredit Wilson's accusations by discrediting Wilson himself. That in itself may not be a crime, nor would such tactics be unique to the Bush White House, given the accepted rules of political combat employed by participants in both major political parties.
Rove told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Wilson's wife was "fair game," according to an October 2003 report in Newsweek. At a minimum Fitzgerald could turn up embarrassing information that may yet become public about how the Bush White House operates.
Although the president has encouraged full cooperation with the special prosecutor, administration officials have not appeared eager to explain fully their roles in the Wilson matter. A number of them have signed waivers of confidentiality freeing reporters with whom they have spoken from maintaining confidentiality, although Cooper and others have said they did not regard that waiver as specific enough. In other cases, administration officials have given reporters specific waivers.
But in some of those cases, officials have given the green light for reporters to testify to the grand jury in exchange for a pledge from the reporter not to reveal publicly the identity of the source or the details of the conversations.
Fitzgerald long has made a distinction in his investigation between conversations held before Novak's column was publicly available (it was moved to his newspaper clients on July 11, 2003) and after, on the assumption that once Plame's name was in the public domain, there was no criminal liability for administration officials to discuss it. Which may be one reason it could be difficult to obtain indictments. After almost two years, Fitzgerald finds only one person in jail as a result of his inquiry -- a reporter who never wrote an article about the leak.
The White House is preparing for a potential battle with the Democrats over a Supreme Court nominee, a conflict with great consequences and in which advocates on both sides appear ready to employ all means available to promote or discredit a nominee.
White House officials make no secret that they think Democrats went beyond the boundaries to discredit the reputations of some of their nominees to the appellate courts. Now into that maelstrom could come discomforting revelations about what top White House officials may have done to discredit Wilson by questioning his motives, his wife's role in the trip to Niger and his veracity.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.