A reporter for Time magazine told Karl Rove's attorney in early 2004 that the White House deputy chief of staff might be in more legal trouble than he originally thought, according to sources familiar with the conversation. Now, Rove is relying on that casual exchange as part of a broad effort to convince a prosecutor he did not lie about his role in the CIA leak case, the sources said.

A conversation between longtime friends -- Viveca Novak, who has helped cover the case for Time, and Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney -- is at the heart of the latest legal maneuvering in the two-year-old case.

Over drinks, Novak told Luskin that Time employees were buzzing that Rove had talked to her colleague Matthew Cooper about CIA operative Valerie Plame in July 2003, sources familiar with the conversation said.

Rove, the president's top political aide, remains under investigation into whether he made false statements for initially failing to tell the FBI and the grand jury that he had spoken to Cooper for a story Cooper wrote on the case.

It is not clear why, or if, the information from Novak could help clear Rove, but Luskin used it and other information to persuade Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald to rethink indicting Rove in late October, according to a source briefed on the matter. Now, Fitzgerald is preparing to question Novak about the conversation as early as next week.

One person familiar with the case said the Novak-Luskin conversation is not what prompted Rove to change his testimony in the case. In fact, this person said, Novak told Luskin about the Rove-Cooper connection before Rove's first appearance before the grand jury in February 2004. In that appearance, Rove testified that he did not recall talking to Cooper about Plame. It was not until October 2004 that Rove told the grand jury he recalled the Cooper chat.

New details emerged yesterday of Rove's version of how and when he came to remember the Cooper conversation. Shortly before his client's second appearance before the grand jury in October, Luskin personally conducted a review of thousands of e-mails Rove had sent during the crucial weeks in 2003, including those from accounts reserved for personal and political correspondence, a source familiar with the situation said.

Amid the e-mails, Luskin found one sent from Rove to Stephen J. Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, in which Rove mentioned his conversation with Cooper. The e-mail was written from Rove's government account, which investigators searched early in the inquiry. It is unclear why the e-mail was not discovered at that time.

Once found by Luskin, the e-mail was shared with Rove and then quickly turned over to Fitzgerald, the source said. Rove then testified that the e-mail "established that he had in fact had a conversation with Cooper," the source said.

Legal sources involved in the probe said Rove's timing in ultimately recalling -- or finally revealing -- his conversation with Cooper is certainly significant to Fitzgerald as he considers whether to charge the White House adviser. Rove provided the information on Oct. 15, 2004, to the grand jury. That new testimony came exactly one month after Fitzgerald issued a new subpoena to Cooper calling upon him to testify before the grand jury about Rove.

It also came two days after Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan issued a contempt citation that ordered Cooper to testify.

Fitzgerald has spent the past two years investigating whether White House officials leaked Plame's name to the media to discredit allegations made by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, that the Bush administration twisted intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

A grand jury indicted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, on Oct. 28 for lying and obstructing justice in the investigation of whether any Bush administration officials knowingly disclosed Plame's CIA identity to the media.

According to a source familiar with Novak's conversation with Luskin, the two were having a casual conversation over drinks sometime in early 2004 when Luskin insisted that his client, Rove, faced no danger in the leak investigation. Novak, described as fishing for information or trying to test Luskin's statement, begged to differ. She said she had heard at the magazine that Rove had been a key source for Cooper on information he published about Plame.

Jim Kelly, Time's managing editor, said Novak's conversation with Luskin took place as part of her normal reporting assignment to keep tabs on the Fitzgerald investigation. He said it is inaccurate to suggest that Novak revealed Cooper's source.

"There's no way that Viveca Novak knowingly, wittingly gave up a confidential source to Robert Luskin," Kelly said.

A source familiar with the exchange said the fact that Rove was Cooper's source was known by only a few at the magazine, including Cooper, his Washington bureau editor and Kelly, but it was not as closely guarded a secret as Time editors now believe it should have been.

Novak did not definitively know that Rove had spoken to Cooper about Plame, the source said, but may have heard gossip from colleagues who had reason to know. Kelly said it is unfair and premature to judge Novak's decision to discuss a colleague's possible confidential source with someone outside the news organization.

"I think to be fair to everyone involved here, we're going to wait until after Viveca testifies under oath to address all the issues presented by this new development," he said. "After that happens, we're going to fully review exactly what transpired here. We want to know exactly how this came to be."

Kelly declined to comment on when Novak notified the magazine that Luskin planned to seek her testimony before Fitzgerald.

Media ethics experts said Novak's decision to discuss Cooper's source with someone outside her news organization raises new questions about reporters' willingness to casually trade information with sources. Cooper had promised anonymity to Rove in their telephone call, and Time fought a year-long legal battle to keep him from being forced to break that promise, before ultimately giving in.

Randall Eliason, the former chief of public integrity prosecution at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, and another former prosecutor, David Schertler, speculated that Fitzgerald would not have considered charging Rove unless he had significant evidence from other witnesses that Rove mentioned the Cooper conversation to them. Now the prosecutor must check out the Novak conversation and weigh it against his other evidence.

"If you're going to bring charges against the White House deputy chief of staff, you want to be absolutely convinced it was an intentional lie," Schertler said. "I think Fitzgerald is looking at this so at the end of the day he can say, 'I explored everything.' "