White House adviser Karl Rove told the grand jury in the CIA leak case that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, may have told him that CIA operative Valerie Plame worked for the intelligence agency before her identity was revealed, a source familiar with Rove's account said yesterday.
In a talk that took place in the days before Plame's CIA employment was revealed in 2003, Rove and Libby discussed conversations they had had with reporters in which Plame and her marriage to Iraq war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV were raised, the source said. Rove told the grand jury the talk was confined to information the two men heard from reporters, the source said.
Rove has also testified that he also heard about Plame from someone else outside the White House, but could not recall who.
The account is the first time a person familiar with Rove's testimony has provided clues about where the deputy chief of staff learned about Plame, and confirmed that Rove and Libby were involved in a conversation about her before her identity became public. The disclosure seemed to further undermine the White House's contention early in the case that neither man was in any way involved in unmasking Plame.
But it leaves unanswered the central question of the more than two-year-old case: Did anyone commit a crime in leaking information about Plame to the media?
Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, did not return calls for comment last night. Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, declined to comment. The development was first reported last night by the Associated Press.
Lawyers in the case have said Rove and Libby are the central focus of Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's 22-month investigation, which is scheduled to end by the time the grand jury expires Oct. 28. But they are not the only officials worried about the uncertain conclusion to the case.
John Hannah, an aide to Cheney and one of two dozen people questioned in the CIA leak case, has told friends in recent months he is worried he may be implicated by the investigation, according to two U.S. officials.
It is not clear whether Hannah had any role in unmasking Plame, or why he should fear Fitzgerald's probe. But the eleventh-hour emergence of another possible target shows how Fitzgerald has cast his net so widely over the past two years that it is impossible to know who, if anyone, it might ensnare.
Fitzgerald and his team have interviewed or taken before the grand jury at least two dozen officials or staffers from the White House, the vice president's office, the State Department and the CIA, according to people involved in the case.
Fitzgerald has dug into the deepest corners of the administration, pressing for information about everything from the mechanics of a secretive group of officials tasked with selling the Iraq war, to the State Department officials who assembled information on Wilson, the diplomat-turned-Iraq war critic, according to people familiar with the case. The focus has been on who leaked Plame's name, and who else knew about it.
But many unknowns remain. What role did Hannah play? What, if any, role was played by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer? Who was the second source for Robert D. Novak, the columnist who first disclosed Plame's name and role in July 2003? Who was the White House official who leaked word about Wilson's wife to The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, who has never publicly revealed his source?
It is possible the public will never learn the answers to these and other questions because Fitzgerald is not required to produce a report and could complete the investigation without charging anyone with a crime.
But White House officials and lawyers are prepared for Fitzgerald to charge at least one official, and maybe more.
Fitzgerald began the probe seeking to determine whether any government official illegally leaked Plame's identity to the media in retaliation for Wilson's criticism that the administration had twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilson, who had traveled on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger, had questioned President Bush's assertion that Baghdad had tried to obtain uranium in Africa for a nuclear weapons program.
The new information about Hannah signals how broadly the prosecutor has probed for answers. As Cheney's deputy national security adviser, he was intimately involved in Iraq policy.
Hannah is one of at least five people in the Cheney operation who have been interviewed by federal investigators.
Fitzgerald's interest in the vice president's office became clearer as the case continued: Cheney was central to building the case that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sought nuclear weapons-grade material in Niger and Libby helped discredit Wilson in part by talking about his wife, according to lawyers in the case.
Fitzgerald talked to Cheney personally near the beginning of the investigation, though according to a person familiar with the case, he has not questioned him since. Fitzgerald and his investigative team interviewed Mary Matalin, a former top Cheney adviser; Catherine Martin, his former communications adviser; and Jennifer Millerwise, his former spokeswoman.
Among the media, most of the focus has been on New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify about her conversations with Libby, and Time magazine's Matt Cooper, the other reporter whom Fitzgerald threatened to jail if he did not reveal his sources.
Cooper, after receiving permission from sources, testified before the grand jury and later said publicly that Rove and Libby had talked to him about Plame. But other reporters were contacted by other White House officials about Plame during the crucial week in July 2003 after Wilson's views became public, according to government officials and people involved in the case.
This leaves open the possibility of a broader leak campaign. In September of 2003, a senior administration official told The Post that at least six journalists were contacted about Plame by two top White House officials.
One of the longest-running mysteries of the case is the identity of Novak's second source. Rove has testified that he discussed Plame in passing with Novak, but it is not clear who else did. Novak has provided scant information about the person's identity. It is unknown whether Novak has cooperated with Fitzgerald, but many familiar with the case believe he has because he did not face the same contempt of court charges levied against Miller and Cooper.
A member of the staff of James Hamilton, Novak's lawyer, said he had no comment.
Pincus, who spoke with Fitzgerald early in the case after his source said he could, has never revealed who told him that Wilson's wife helped arrange the trip to Niger. Pincus has said the source was not Libby, and has described the person as a "White House official" who called him. The source came forward to the prosecutor and released Pincus to discuss their conversation with Fitzgerald but not with the public.
Many White House officials have been called before the grand jury, including spokesman Scott McClellan, senior adviser Dan Bartlett, former communications aide Adam Levine and Fleischer, among others. Bush spoke personally with Fitzgerald early in the probe.
One reason Fitzgerald expressed interest in Fleischer, administration officials said, is his presence on a July 2003 presidential trip to Africa. On that flight aboard Air Force One, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had a memo that mentioned Wilson's wife, in a section marked "S" for secret, according to some administration officials. But Powell said on CNN this week the memo he saw did not mention Plame.
According to people involved in the case, prosecutors believe a printout of that memo was in the front of Air Force One during the July 7-12 trip Bush took to Africa, but investigators are unsure who saw it. The prosecutor has also examined the role of Stephen J. Hadley, Bush's national security adviser. In an e-mail that surfaced earlier this year, Rove told Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, about his conversation with Cooper, saying he waved the reporter off Wilson's allegations. The e-mail was not turned over until long after the probe began.
One person in the probe said Fitzgerald showed considerable early interest in the White House Iraq Group, a task force created by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. in August 2002 and charged with "marketing" the war in Iraq to the public.
The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Its regular participants were Rove, Libby, Hadley, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, adviser Karen Hughes, Matalin, and White House director of legislative affairs Nicholas Calio.
The special prosecutor has talked to a number of Foggy Bottom officials about the State Department memo, drafted about a month before Plame's identity was disclosed. Fitzgerald has questioned Powell about his knowledge of the document, according to people familiar with the case.
Former CIA director George J. Tenet and ex-deputy director John E. McLaughlin, were both interviewed by prosecutors. Bill Harlow, CIA public affairs director, went before the grand jury and was questioned about a conversation he had with Novak before Novak's column appeared. Sources said he was contacted by Novak about the Plame information and told him not to publish her name or information about her.
Staff writer Dafna Linzner contributed to this report.