News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Leak Probe Was Told of White House Interest in Wilson

By Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten / Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were intensely focused on discrediting former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV in the days after he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times suggesting the administration manipulated intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq, federal investigators have been told.

Prosecutors investigating whether White House officials illegally leaked the identity of Wilson's wife, a CIA officer who had worked undercover, have been told that Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove, and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, were especially intent on undercutting Wilson's credibility, according to a person familiar with the inquiry.

While lower-level White House staff members typically handle most contacts with the media, Rove and Libby began personally communicating with reporters about Wilson, prosecutors were told.

A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House. When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove responded: "He's a Democrat." Rove then cited Wilson's campaign donations, which leaned toward Democrats, the person familiar with the case said.

The disclosures about the officials' roles illustrate the concern in the White House following the July 6, 2003, publication of Wilson's article, which challenged the administration's assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase nuclear materials. Wilson's article appeared as Rove and other Bush aides were preparing the 2004 re-election campaign strategy, which was built largely around the president's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

It is not surprising that White House officials would be upset by an attack like Wilson's or seek to respond aggressively. But special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is examining whether they or others crossed the legal line by improperly disclosing classified information or perjured themselves in testifying later about their actions. Both Rove and Libby have testified.

News of the high-level interest in discrediting Wilson comes as White House defenders, most notably officials at the Republican National Committee, argue that Rove has been vindicated of suspicion that he was a primary source of the leak. Knowingly revealing the identify of a covert operative is a federal crime.

Regardless of Rove's legal liability, the description of his role runs contrary to earlier White House statements that Rove and Libby were not involved in the naming of Wilson's wife and suggests they were part of a campaign to discredit Wilson.

Wilson, a career Foreign Service officer who served in Iraq and several African nations, had been sent by the CIA in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had attempted to purchase nuclear materials from the African country of Niger. His New York Times article, which declared he had found no credible evidence of such an attempt -- despite the administration's continued claims to the contrary -- unleashed charges from White House officials and Republicans that he was a partisan. White House officials contended that he had wrongly indicated that he was sent on his mission by Cheney. In fact, Wilson had said in the article only that the trip was inspired by questions raised by Cheney's office.

Eight days after Wilson's article was published, a syndicated column by Robert Novak questioned the credibility of Wilson's trip, suggesting that it had been arranged with the help of his wife, Valerie Plame, at the CIA.

Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, cited news reports in recent days noting that Rove heard about Wilson's wife from reporters and that he was not an original source. Those reports said that Rove, in fact, sought to dissuade Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper -- one of the journalists with whom he discussed Wilson's wife -- from writing a piece about Wilson.

"Based on the information that has come out over the last several days, the one thing that's absolutely clear is that Karl was not the source for the leak, and there's no basis for any additional speculation," Luskin said.

A White House spokesman, David Almacy, declined on Sunday to comment. "This is an ongoing investigation, and we will be happy to talk about this once it is completed, but not until then," he said.

The disclosure of prosecutors' intense questioning of witnesses about Rove and Libby casts doubt on assertions that the president's longtime political guru was not in Fitzgerald's sights, at least at some point.

Fitzgerald is expected to conclude his inquiry this year with a detailed report.

Bush has said he would fire whoever was responsible for the leak. Democrats have called on Bush to fire Rove, now a deputy White House chief of staff, or at least revoke his security clearance.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," said Sunday that Rove and the White House deserve credit for cooperating with Fitzgerald. "Cooperate, cooperate, cooperate" was the policy, said Mehlman, who once worked as Rove's deputy at the White House.

Cooper, who testified last week before Fitzgerald's grand jury concerning his conversations with White House officials about Wilson, confirmed Sunday that prosecutors showed intense interest in the roles played by Rove and Libby in discussing Wilson's wife.

In an article for this week's issue of Time entitled "What I Told the Grand Jury," Cooper wrote that the grand jurors probed his interactions with Rove in "microscopic, excruciating detail."

He said he called Rove after Wilson's article appeared and asked about it. "I recall saying something like, `I'm writing about Wilson,' before he interjected," Cooper wrote. " `Don't get too far out on Wilson,' he told me."

Cooper wrote that his first knowledge of Wilson's wife came when Rove disclosed on "deep background" that she worked for the CIA, but that he did not learn her name until he read it in Novak's column several days later.

Novak was the first journalist to identify Plame by name, along with her role as "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," citing two senior administration officials as his sources for that information.

"As for Wilson's wife, I told the grand jury I was certain that Rove never used her name and that, indeed, I did not learn her name until the following week, when I either saw it in Robert Novak's column or Googled her, I can't recall which," Cooper wrote. "Rove did, however, clearly indicate that she worked at the `agency' -- by that, I told the grand jury, I inferred that he obviously meant the CIA and not, say, the Environmental Protection Agency. Rove added that she worked on `WMD' (the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction) issues and that she was responsible for sending Wilson. This was the first time I had heard anything about Wilson's wife."

Cooper also recalled in his article that Rove ended their conversation with a cryptic caution: "I've already said too much."

"This could have meant he was worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else," Cooper wrote.

As for Libby, Cooper wrote that he told investigators in 2004 about a conversation in which the Cheney adviser seemed to confirm the identity of Wilson's wife. But the conversation was "on background." It is not clear from Cooper's account that Libby's response was based on original information or gossip he picked up from other journalists.

"On background, I asked Libby if he had heard anything about Wilson's wife sending her husband to Niger," Cooper wrote. "Libby replied, `Yeah, I've heard that too,' or words to that effect. Like Rove, Libby never used Valerie Plame's name. ..."

Based on the questions he was asked, Cooper speculated in his personal account that Fitzgerald might be pursuing Rove -- or, perhaps just as likely, the person or document that passed the information to Rove and other administration officials.

Fitzgerald, Cooper wrote, "asked me several different ways if Rove indicated how he had heard that Plame worked at the CIA. (He did not, I told the grand jury.)"

The intensity of Fitzgerald's probe has picked up in recent weeks, particularly after Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller lost a court battle over shielding confidential sources. Cooper agreed to testify, but Miller refused to reveal her source and was sent to jail for contempt of court.

Activities aboard Air Force One are also of interest to prosecutors -- including the possible distribution of a State Department memo that mentioned Wilson's wife. Prosecutors are seeking to find out whether anyone who saw the memo learned Plame's identity and passed the information to journalists. Telephone logs from the presidential aircraft have been subpoenaed; among those aboard was former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who has testified before the grand jury.

The source familiar with the investigation said Saturday that prosecutors had obtained a White House call sheet showing that Novak left a message for Fleischer on the afternoon of July 7, 2003, the day after Wilson's op-ed article appeared and the day that Fleischer left with the president for Africa. Fleischer declined to comment for this article, but has flatly denied that he was the source of the leak.

Wilson said in an interview Saturday that he had known that Novak was interested in him a week or so before the column appeared. He said that a friend who saw Novak on the street reported that Novak told him, "Wilson is an (expletive) and his wife works for the CIA."

As for the intensity of White House interest in him after the column, Wilson said: "I am sorry that 6,900 American soldiers have been injured and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and injured all because these guys sent us to war under false pretenses."

Wilson speculated in a book he wrote last year that it was Libby who was "responsible for exposing my wife's identity." Libby has indicated to investigators that he learned the identity of Plame from journalists.

Rove has told investigators the same, although a person familiar with his testimony said that it cannot be ruled out that Rove may have learned the information from the journalists indirectly, possibly even through Libby. The person said that Rove simply had no firm recollection of the events.

There have been other indications of a concerted White House action against the former envoy. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus has said that two days before Novak's column, he was told by an "administration official" that the White House was not putting much stock in the Wilson trip to Africa because it was "set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction," according to an account of the conversation Pincus wrote for the Summer 2005 issue of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Pincus discussed the substance of the conversation with Fitzgerald last fall under an arrangement where he was not required to reveal the source's identity.

And Fleischer also seemed attuned to a strategy of discrediting Wilson, questioning his findings in response to queries from reporters while accompanying Bush on the Africa trip days before Novak published Plame's identity.

The transcript of that press "gaggle," the term for an informal question-and-answer between reporters and the White House spokesman which in this case took place in the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria, has been requested by the prosecutors.

Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.


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