The reporter with whom Karl Rove discussed a covert CIA operative testified before a grand jury yesterday, as President Bush appeared publicly with his top White House political adviser and cautioned against prejudging the federal leak investigation.
Matthew Cooper, the Time magazine reporter who for months had refused to disclose private conversations with Rove, emerged from a federal courthouse here after more than two hours of testimony but shed little light on what he told prosecutors.
A number of legal experts, some of whom are involved in the case, said evidence that has emerged publicly suggests Rove or other administration officials face potential legal threats on at least three fronts.
The first is the unmasking of CIA official Valerie Plame, the original focus of special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's probe. But legal sources say there are indications the prosecutor is looking at two other areas related to the administration's handling of his investigation. One possible legal vulnerability is perjury, if officials did not testify truthfully to a federal grand jury, and another is obstructing justice, if they tried to coordinate cover stories to obscure facts.
Legal experts said the evidence that has emerged in recent days -- including confirmation that Rove and Cooper spoke about Plame's role at the CIA as a way of knocking down a damaging story about the administration's Iraq policy -- does not by itself necessarily indicate a crime was committed. Even so, White House officials acknowledged privately that they are concerned that the investigation will lead to an indictment of someone in the administration later this year.
The White House had declared that Rove was not involved in Plame's unmasking, and, when the controversy broke in the summer of 2003, Bush said he would fire anyone who illegally outed a CIA official. But the president steered clear of substantive comment yesterday, his first public remarks since Rove's role was confirmed.
"This is a serious investigation," Bush told reporters. "It is very important for people not to prejudge the investigation based on media reports."
Rove was seated directly behind the president as he spoke after a Cabinet meeting. Bush reiterated that every member of his staff has been ordered to comply with investigators and said it would be inappropriate to comment further.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush fully supports Rove, though the president did not make such a statement when asked twice by reporters about Rove's role in the Plame controversy.
At the courthouse, Cooper declined to provide details about his testimony. He added that he had "no idea whether a crime was committed or not. That's something the special counsel's going to have to determine."
Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said that Cooper's grand jury appearance was enabled by Rove's assurance that he was not asking for confidential-source status and did not object to the reporter's testimony. "By facilitating Cooper's testimony, Rove has helped ensure the special prosecutor has access to all relevant information from every source," Luskin said. "Cooper's truthful testimony today will not call into question the accuracy or completeness of anything Rove has previously said to the prosecutor or grand jury. . . . Rove has cooperated completely with the special prosecutor, and he has been repeatedly assured he is not a target of the investigation."
Outside the courtroom and away from the White House, Republicans stepped up their defense of Rove, while Democrats intensified their drumbeat for Bush to fire Rove, or at least revoke his security clearance. Democrats on the House intelligence committee said Rove's security clearance should be blocked until the investigation is complete. The White House has no plans to pull Rove's clearance, aides said.
Still, much of the leak probe remains a mystery to those outside the office of Fitzgerald, who is leading the investigation and divulging little.
It is a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a federal official to intentionally disclose the identity of a covert agent.
The controversy began when former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, Plame's husband, went to Niger in February 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase materials for the production of nuclear weapons. He found the claims to be largely unfounded. Seventeen months later, after Wilson leveled charges that the administration manipulated evidence in making the case for war on Iraq, news reports cited administration officials saying his charges were not credible because the Niger report was tainted by nepotism, because he was sent by Plame.
Several people familiar with the investigation said they expect Fitzgerald to indict, or at least force a plea agreement with, at least one individual for leaking Plame's name to conservative columnist Robert D. Novak in July 2003.
Randall D. Eliason, former public corruption chief at the U.S. Attorney's Office here, said Fitzgerald likely has evidence of serious wrongdoing, or he would not have gone this far.
"Right now, it's more political damage than legal damage" for the White House, Eliason said. "But it's reasonable to speculate he wouldn't go to the Supreme Court on reporters' privilege unless he had something pretty serious. You don't subpoena reporters and throw them in jail lightly. Fitzgerald is not some type of bomb-thrower."
An official could face perjury charges for misleading the special counsel while testifying under oath. If so, this would become a familiar case of Washington officials getting in trouble for a coverup rather than the original misdeed.
"If you look at past scandals, people are most often indicted for making false statements to federal investigators or false statements to the grand jury," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and criminal lawyer. "Even a brief conversation can become an obstruction charge."
Fitzgerald could have evidence, for instance, that Rove or other officials encouraged someone to tell a coverup story to explain their conversations about Plame, which could lead to a charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice. But legal experts noted these cases are often difficult to prove.
Finally, there could be evidence of the crime that Fitzgerald first set out to investigate, a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Under a very detailed list of conditions, if Rove or other government officials revealed the identity of Plame to the media while knowing she was a covert agent, they could face felony charges and up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Victoria Toensing, who helped write the act, has said there is likely no such evidence in this case, because the statute was designed to have a high standard and requires proof of intent to harm national security.