A Time magazine reporter testified in the CIA leak case that she alerted Karl Rove's lawyer in early 2004 that the top Bush adviser had leaked information to her colleague about Valerie Plame, according to a first-person account published yesterday in Time.

The reporter, Viveca Novak, did not initially tell her bosses at Time that she may have tipped off Rove's lawyer or that the special prosecutor in the CIA leak was interested in the details of her conversation with Robert D. Luskin, Rove's lawyer. As a result, she and Time editors agreed she would take a leave of absence while they contemplate her future at the magazine.

The casual chat between Novak and Luskin, which took place in the first half of 2004, is now central to Rove's efforts to avoid indictment in the more than two-year-old case. Novak's account in this week's issue of Time does little to explain how a conversation over drinks between Rove's lawyer and a reporter chasing the story could help clear the senior Bush adviser. In addition to raising new questions about the role of journalists in the Plame affair, Novak's testimony provides fresh and significant insight into Rove's campaign to avoid charges in a case that threatens the man President Bush once called the "architect" of his reelection.

Rove is believed to be under investigation for providing false statements about his role in the public disclosure of Plame's CIA employment.

Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald -- who charged I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, with lying and obstructing justice -- recently presented evidence to a new grand jury. Sources close to the case said that one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business is whether to indict Rove -- and that a decision could come as early as this month.

The sources, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have been urged by Fitzgerald not to discuss the case, said Luskin told the prosecutor about the conversation with Novak a few days before Libby was indicted on Oct. 28.

It was only part of what the sources described as a furious, last-minute effort by Luskin to convince the prosecutor that Rove was guilty of nothing more than a bad memory -- and certainly not of trying to cover up his role in the Plame case. Of the information presented by Luskin that day, the Novak conversation is the only piece known to require additional investigation. Now that Fitzgerald has deposed Luskin and Novak, some close to the case think Rove's fate could soon be known.

Novak, according to her first-person account, testified Thursday that in early 2004 she met with Luskin. She told him Time reporters were buzzing that Rove was one of the sources who told Matthew Cooper, a reporter at the magazine, in July 2003 that Plame worked at the CIA.

This became a big deal once Fitzgerald started investigating whether anyone in the Bush administration illegally disclosed Plame's CIA identity as part of a broader White House effort to discredit allegations made by Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, that Bush had hyped intelligence to justify the Iraq war.

According to Novak's account, she mentioned to Luskin only the speculation about the identity of Cooper's confidential source because she felt Luskin was "spinning" her. She and Luskin met for drinks occasionally after work at Cafe Deluxe on Wisconsin Avenue, and at one of those meetings, she said, Luskin insisted to her that Rove faced no legal exposure in the investigation. She said she pushed back, saying to the attorney, "Are you sure about that?" and remarked that she had heard from Time colleagues that Rove was Cooper's source for a story he did on Plame in July 2003. "He looked surprised and very serious," Novak wrote in the Time article.

It is not clear why this matters. Novak wrote that Luskin told her the tip set in motion a cycle of events that led Rove and his lawyers to search phone logs and other material to determine whether Rove had talked to Cooper -- and eventually prompted Rove to change his testimony. But another lawyer in the case said Luskin had a different strategy in mind when alerting Fitzgerald to the conversation.

Until he testified for a second time in October 2004, Rove maintained he did not recall talking to Cooper. Shortly before testifying, Luskin found an e-mail written by Rove to then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley in July 2003 in which Rove mentioned the conversation with Cooper. Rove then testified that the e-mail jarred his memory, a lawyer close to the case said.

It appears the timing of the Luskin-Novak conversation is crucial to Rove's defense. Novak said she does not recall the precise date but said she talked with Luskin in January, March and May 2004. She wrote that she believed the talk probably took place in May.

A lawyer close to the case said Luskin has contended the conversation happened before Rove's first appearance before the grand jury in February 2004, when he testified he did not recall discussing Plame with Cooper. Luskin refused to comment. A spokesman for Rove's defense said in a statement that Rove is cooperating and that private discussions with the prosecutor will not be discussed publicly.

One possible explanation of why the date is so important is that Luskin could contend it would have been foolish for Rove to try to cover up his role when he knew -- because of Novak's disclosure to Luskin -- that a number of people knew he had talked to Cooper and that it probably would soon become public.

Novak is not related to Robert D. Novak, the conservative columnist who was the first person to disclose Plame's CIA employment in a July 2003 column.

Viveca Novak's standing at Time is in doubt as a result of the episode. She waited to alert her editors for nearly a month after it appeared she might become a part of the leak investigation story -- rather than a writer helping to cover it, according to the dates provided in her account.

She said she hoped she would not have to go before the grand jury. She hired a lawyer and opted not to tell her editors in hopes that she would not become a figure in the story and the subject of news accounts. But on the day she was writing a story about Washington Post reporter and Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward being deposed in the investigation, she learned Fitzgerald wanted to interview her under oath.

Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly said yesterday he and Novak agreed in conversations Saturday evening that she needed to "take a deep breath," and that Kelly needed time to deliberate about her performance and future. "Clearly, there was a failure to keep her bureau chief posted about this," he said. "It's fair to say I am disturbed by that."

Kelly added, "there was no struggle" and the two agreed to temporarily part ways. "I take very seriously what's happened, and Viveca takes it very seriously, too," he said.