Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has been reviewing over the past several months discrepancies and gaps in witness testimony in his investigation of the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to lawyers in the case and witness statements.
Fitzgerald has spent considerable time since the summer of 2004 looking at possible conflicts between what White House senior adviser Karl Rove and vice presidential staff chief I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury and investigators, and the accounts of reporters who talked with the two men, according to various sources in the case.
Libby has testified that he learned about Plame from NBC correspondent Tim Russert, according to a source who spoke with The Washington Post some months ago. Russert said in a statement last year that he told the prosecutor that "he did not know Ms. Plame's name or that she was a CIA operative" and that he did not provide such information to Libby in July 2003.
Prosecutors have also probed Rove's testimony about his telephone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in the crucial days before Plame's name was revealed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak.
Rove has testified that he and Cooper talked about welfare reform foremost and turned to the topic of Plame only near the end, lawyers involved in the case said. But Cooper, writing about his testimony in the most recent issue of Time, said he "can't find any record of talking about" welfare reform. "I don't recall doing so," Cooper wrote.
Both Libby's attorney and Rove's attorney declined to comment yesterday, as did Fitzgerald's office. The possible conflicts in the accounts given by Russert and Libby were first reported yesterday by Bloomberg News.
Fitzgerald's review of apparent discrepancies are further evidence that his investigation has ranged beyond his original mission to determine if someone broke the law by knowingly revealing the identity of a covert operative.
The leaks case centers on the Bush administration's response in the days after July 6, 2003, when former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV accused the Bush administration in the New York Times and The Washington Post of twisting intelligence to justify a war with Iraq. He wrote in an op-ed piece that on a U.S. mission to Niger, he found no proof of the claim that Iraq was trying to acquire materials for nuclear weapons. Eight days later, Novak published a column suggesting that the administration did not take Wilson's findings seriously and noting that Wilson's wife -- Plame -- was a CIA operative who had suggested him for the trip.
After building criticism that someone in the administration had jeopardized an agent in political retaliation, Fitzgerald was appointed by the Justice Department in December 2003 to conduct an independent investigation.
Fitzgerald has long been interested in a Time magazine article co-written by Cooper shortly after Novak's column was published on July 14, 2003. In the article, Cooper and two colleagues wrote about the administration's efforts to discredit Wilson and noted that some government sources had revealed that Plame worked for the CIA.
Lawyers involved in the case said there are now indications that Fitzgerald did not initially know or suspect that Rove was Cooper's primary source for the reporter's information about Plame. That raises questions about how much Rove disclosed when first questioned in the inquiry or how closely he was initially queried about his contacts with reporters. Rove has testified before a grand jury and been questioned by FBI agents on at least five occasions over the past two years.
Two lawyers involved in the case say that although Fitzgerald used phone logs to determine some contacts between officials and reporters, they believe there is no phone record of Cooper's now-famous call to Rove in the days before Novak's column appeared. That is because Cooper called the White House switchboard and was reconnected to Rove's office, sources said.
Also, when first questioned in the days after Plame's name appeared in the press, Rove left the impression with top White House aides that he had talked about her only with Novak, according to a source familiar with information provided to investigators.
Initially, Fitzgerald appeared focused on the theory that Libby had leaked Plame's identity, according to lawyers involved in the case. He had interviewed three other reporters about their conversations with Libby, but all three indicated he either did not discuss Plame or did not reveal her identity.
He also sought testimony from Cooper about his July 2003 story in Time. In 2004, Cooper obtained a waiver from Libby to discuss their conversation, as had the three other reporters.
Cooper and his attorneys were surprised that Fitzgerald agreed to ask Cooper questions only about his conversations with Libby, sources familiar with the investigation said.
The sources said Fitzgerald looked surprised in the August 2004 deposition when Cooper said it was he who brought up Wilson's wife with Libby, and that Libby responded, "Yeah, I heard that, too."
The prosecutor pressed Cooper to then explain how he knew about Wilson's wife in the first place, and Cooper said he would not answer the question because it did not involve Libby, the sources said.
That testimony contributed to a lengthy legal battle, as Fitzgerald sought to compel Cooper to testify before a grand jury about his conversation with the source. He also sought testimony from New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
While Miller has refused to answer questions about her confidential source -- and has been jailed in Alexandria -- Cooper testified last week after he received what he concluded was a sufficient release from his source.
Cooper then told the grand jury that Rove was the first administration official to tip him off that Plame worked for the CIA. It is not clear whether Rove's tip violated the law, and his attorney has said he was only trying to warn Cooper off of information being peddled by Wilson.
Rove has at some point testified that he passed on information about Plame to Cooper, according to two lawyers involved in the case. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, declined to say when Rove gave this testimony.
But a source close to Rove said the senior adviser volunteered the information: "It appeared they were not aware of the conversation."
The prosecutors have appeared keen to see if they can fill in some gaps in Rove's memory about how he learned about Plame, and they have repeatedly asked witnesses if Rove told them how he knew about Plame. Rove testified early in the investigation that his information about Plame came from Novak, his attorney said. Rove testified he also may have heard about her from another reporter or administration official who had heard it from a reporter, but he could not recall the second source of his information, his attorney said.
Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.