The grand jury investigating the CIA leak case pressed White House senior adviser Karl Rove yesterday to more fully explain his conversations with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame, including discrepancies between his testimony and the account provided by a key witness in the investigation, according to a source familiar with Rove's account.
Making his fourth appearance before the grand jury, Rove answered a broad range of questions for 41/2 hours, including why he did not initially tell federal agents about a July 2003 conversation about Plame with the witness, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, the source said.
Rove's defense team asserts that President Bush's deputy chief of staff has not committed a crime but nevertheless anticipates that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald could find a way to bring charges in the next two weeks, the source said.
"The special counsel has not advised Mr. Rove that he is a target of the investigation and affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges," Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, said in a statement.
Fitzgerald is believed to be in the final days of a 22-month investigation into whether any administration officials knowingly identified Plame to the media to retaliate against her husband, an outspoken critic of the Iraq war. White House officials are bracing for the possibility that Rove; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's chief of staff; or other officials could be indicted.
But it remains a mystery who -- if anyone -- will be charged in the case. The grand jury expires Oct. 28.
One person who will not be charged is Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify in the case before making two recent appearances before the grand jury. Miller was recently told by Fitzgerald that she is only a witness in the case, according to a source close to Miller.
"Judy has always been a witness in this case and nothing more," said Robert S. Bennett, Miller's attorney. "She is neither a subject nor a target of the investigation."
A team of Times reporters is preparing a report on Miller's role in the saga that could be published as early as tomorrow. Until a contempt-of-court citation against her was lifted, Miller refused to tell her story to the paper on the advice of her lawyers. But Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said yesterday that Miller is now cooperating with fellow reporters on the story.
Rove, the mastermind of Bush's political career, who is considered the leading architect of White House political and policy plans, has emerged as a central figure in the investigation. In addition to his four trips to the grand jury, he spoke with investigators several times early in the probe.
His story has changed from the earliest days, when he told reporters he had nothing to do with the leak of Plame's name. Since then, Rove has testified that he discussed Plame in passing with two reporters, including Robert D. Novak, whose July 14, 2003, syndicated column first publicly identified Plame as a CIA operative married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson said publicly that he had found no evidence for the administration's claim that Iraq was seeking uranium for use in a nuclear weapons program. Wilson had been sent to the African nation of Niger by the CIA to investigate that claim.
But Rove has maintained that he did not name Plame or disclose her covert status, and it is not clear whether his remarks amount to a crime.
The source close to Rove would not provide details of yesterday's exchange, other than to say the grand jury was very interested in discrepancies in testimony. Rove initially did not tell federal agents about his conversations with Cooper. In an earlier grand jury appearance, he testified that the purpose of their conversation was welfare reform, not Wilson or Plame.
But Cooper testified that he did not recall discussing welfare reform at all. He said he had detailed notes on their discussion about Wilson and Rove's passing reference to Wilson's wife.
There is also a mystery about a once-missing e-mail. The e-mail -- from Rove to a White House colleague -- shows Rove discussing his conversation with Cooper and saying he waved the reporter off Wilson's allegations. It did not surface until earlier this year, well after the investigation was in full swing.
Luskin said Rove is finished testifying in the case, which would seem to suggest the end of the case is near, lawyers involved in it said.
Because Fitzgerald mandated secrecy in the case, the role of other administration officials remains unknown to all but the special prosecutor's staff. Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, has not returned reporters' phone calls for several days. Neither has Ari Fleischer, the former White House spokesman who testified early in the case and was present on a July 2003 Air Force One flight on which a memo that included information about Plame was circulated.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who in 2003 denied any White House involvement in the leak, has refused comment for several months.
Libby, who, like Rove, has testified to discussing Plame without using her name or disclosing her CIA status, also appears to be another main focus of the probe.
Wilson's campaign caught the attention of Vice President Cheney's office nearly two months before Plame was unmasked, according to senior administration officials. Cheney's aides pressed the CIA for information about Wilson.
By early June -- one month before Plame was identified in Novak's column -- the State Department had prepared a memo on Wilson's trip that contained a small section about Plame marked "S" for secret. A few days before Novak's column was published, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell brought the memo with him on a trip to Africa with Bush and many of his top aides.
Some lawyers in the case think Fitzgerald may no longer be interested in proving whether Plame's name was illegally leaked to reporters. That would require the difficult task of showing that an official knew the material was classified, that the official knew that the CIA was actively working to keep it a secret and that the person purposely leaked the information.
Instead, the lawyers, who based their opinions on the kinds of questions Fitzgerald is asking and not on firsthand knowledge, think the special prosecutor may be headed in a different direction. They said Fitzgerald could be trying to establish that a group of White House officials violated the Espionage Act, which prohibits the disclosure of classified material, or that they engaged in a conspiracy to discredit Wilson in part by identifying Plame.
Another possibility, the lawyers say, is that Fitzgerald could charge Rove or others with perjury or providing false testimony before the grand jury. This is a popular avenue for prosecutors in white-collar criminal cases.
While other aides describe a nervous and unsettled White House, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said that the president's advisers are going about their business and trying to ignore the controversy.
"Well, obviously we're all human beings and we know that there are external activities that impact the environment you're working in . . .," Card said in the transcript of an interview with C-SPAN that will air tomorrow. "It is something that is there, but it is something that we don't talk about because it would be inappropriate. . . . I haven't found anyone that is distracted because of the ongoing investigation, but we all know that it's taking place and we're all working to cooperate with the investigators."