Rove Testifies in Wilson Leak

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Karl Rove, one of President Bush’s top White House aides, testified this morning before a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's name by administration sources. Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald questioned Rove about his contacts with journalists in what a source familiar with Rove's situation said was his third appearance before the grand jury. "My client appeared voluntarily before the grand jury and has cooperated with the investigation since it began," said Rove's attorney Robert Luskin. "He has been assured in writing as recently as this week that he is not a target of the investigation."

Fitzgerald is trying to find out who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative married to former ambassador Joe Wilson, to several journalists in July 2003. Conservative columnist Robert Novak was the first to disclose Plame’s name in print. In a July 14, 2003 column in the Washington Post, Novak said that two unnamed administration sources had told him that Plame was involved in the CIA’s decision to send her husband to Africa in 2002 to investigate a tip that Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium from Niger for its nuclear weapons program. In early July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed in the New York Times accusing President Bush of relying on discredited intelligence when he cited the Niger-Iraq link in making the case for invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein. Novak suggested in his column that Plame’s role in dispatching her husband to Niger undermined the credibility of Wilson's accusations against the President. Wilson, in turn, accused Bush administration officials of trying to intimidate him and smear his reputation by leaking his wife’s identity.

Under the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, it is a crime for someone with authorized access to classified information to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert agent. Shortly after the investigation started, Bush ordered everyone in the administration to provide "full cooperation" with the investigation, and Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the disclosure of Plame's name could be worse than Watergate "in terms of the real-world implications of it." But nobody has come forward to admit to being a source for Novak's column. Besides Rove, a number of other White House aides, including counsel Alberto Gonzales, have gone before the grand jury.

Rove's grand jury appearance comes as Fitzgerald is aggressively pursuing the testimony of two other journalists ensnared in the case, Time's Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller of the New York Times. Three days after Novak’s column appeared, Cooper and two colleagues wrote an article for Time Magazine’s Website saying that “government officials” had told them that Wilson’s wife was a CIA official. Miller was subpoenaed to testify about sources she spoke to while reporting on Wilson, though she never published anything on the subject.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan found Cooper in contempt of court on Wednesday, for the second time, for refusing to testify. (Cooper’s first contempt citation was rescinded when he gave limited information to prosecutors after a source, Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, authorized him and several other journalists to discuss their confidential conversations.) Miller was found in contempt last week. She and Cooper, citing the need for journalists to be able to protect their sources, are appealing the rulings jointly, but no decision is expected from the appeals court until mid-to-late November. They could each face up to 18 months in jail if they lose their appeal.

Novak’s status continues to be a mystery; neither he nor his lawyer, Jim Hamilton, will talk about their contacts with prosecutors. Lawyers for other witnesses in the case have concluded that Novak is cooperating, since he has not been held in contempt. But even if Novak is cooperating and has revealed his sources, these lawyers say, Fitzgerald would want to talk to other journalists to strengthen any case he might bring. And the prosecutor may be seeking to substantiate a Sept. 2003 Washington Post story, which quoted an administration source saying that two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to at least six Washington journalists in retribution for Wilson's comments. The leak was "meant purely and simply for revenge," the official said. Fitzgerald might want to learn if those two officials were the same ones who talked to Novak. Each instance of disclosure of Plame's identity would be a separate crime.