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

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Mystery Thickens in Secret Source Case

After two years, more questions than answers have emerged on who named a CIA agent and the role the White House may have played.

By Richard B. Schmitt / Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Was it Karl Rove, after all?

Or is President Bush's longtime political advisor getting a bum rap, fueled by wishful thinking of administration critics?

Nearly two years to the day after Robert Novak identified a CIA operative in his syndicated newspaper column, the mystery of who might have leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Novak and other journalists seems only to be deepening.

The latest tantalizing clue involves Rove and a conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in the days before the Novak column appeared.

The conversation was revealed last week by Rove's lawyer, who added that his client didn't identify Plame or do anything wrong. Nobody has said precisely what the two men discussed. But special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is apparently interested in questioning Cooper about the conversation before wrapping up his investigation.

Cooper narrowly avoided jail this week after saying that a source — thought to be Rove — had waived his pledge of confidentiality and that he was now free to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak.

The disclosure about the two men's conversation, combined with Fitzgerald's interest in Cooper's source, has prompted speculation about the identity and motives of the nation's most talked-about confidential source since "Deep Throat."

But unlike the recently revealed Watergate-era source, the Plame case has raised difficult questions for the news media, including whether journalists have ethical duties to protect sources whose own behavior is at issue.

The case has given ammunition to those who say the media are too liberal. And media groups have criticized Fitzgerald for playing hardball with Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to cooperate, but attacked him for failing to get to the bottom of possible wrongdoing by a Republican administration.

Some people close to the case theorize that the identity of Plame was introduced to administration officials by journalists who might have known of her status and mentioned it in the kind of back-and-forth that is common in reporters' conversations with sources. Repeating such gossip, however unseemly, would probably not be illegal, legal experts say.

Fitzgerald has been investigating since December 2003. The suspicion is that someone in the White House leaked the identity of Plame to the press in retaliation for an opinion piece her husband had written in the New York Times that attacked the Bush administration for intelligence failures. Novak revealed Plame's name in a July 14, 2003 column.

Rove was first mentioned as a possibility mainly through the efforts of Plame's husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who said he had received phone calls from journalists saying that Rove was talking about Plame.

Weeks later, Wilson, responding to a question about the leak investigation, said he thought it might be "fun to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

In a book about the case, Wilson wrote that he had changed his mind and suspected that vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby might be the culprit.

In public statements, the White House, Rove and his lawyer have emphatically denied wrongdoing.

Early in the investigation, White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced that Rove and other top aides were not involved in "the leaking of classified information."

Rove, in a television interview, said of Plame: "I didn't know her name, and didn't leak her name."

Of course, it would be possible to identify Plame without mentioning her name. Telling a reporter that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA would be tantamount to outing her.

This week, Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, was more categorical: "Karl absolutely did not identify Valerie Plame…. He did not disclose any confidential information … to Cooper or anybody else."

White House statements have skirted questions about discussions that administration officials may have had with journalists about Plame. The statements seem to show an awareness of the distinction between breaking the law and repeating gossip.

And the law governing the protection of covert agents is written in such a way that hardly anyone has been prosecuted under it.

The government must show that individuals knew the agent had a protected status and that the agent's identity was disclosed intentionally.

The law also requires that the government must have been making active efforts to protect the identity of the agent. Some argue that Plame no longer was doing undercover work and operated openly at CIA headquarters.

To some, the statements from the White House and Rove are ambiguous on possible lesser misconduct — a wink or a nod to a journalist, or passing along rumors heard from others.

There is also the possibility that, if Rove and Cooper discussed Wilson's wife, they have different recollections of what was said.

The story Cooper subsequently wrote on said that "some government officials" had noted to Time that Plame was a CIA official. Luskin has said Cooper initiated the conversation with Rove.

It appears clear that one possibility pursued by Fitzgerald is whether a journalist started a chain of conversations about Plame between reporters and White House officials. Among the journalists who testified in the case was Tim Russert of NBC News, who afterward said he had told Fitzgerald that he did not reveal the identity of Plame in a conversation with Libby.

That Rove might have provided any information bearing on Plame — even if he did not break the law — might not look good for the administration.

But only the tight-lipped Fitzgerald and his team know precisely what course the investigation is on and why Rove has apparently become a person of interest at this late date.

Luskin said he was assured by Fitzgerald that Rove was not a target of the investigation.

Asked for comment this week about what connection Rove may have to the case, the White House stopped short of its previous denials of wrongdoing.

"The president's instructions from the very beginning were to fully cooperate with the investigation, and as part of that cooperating, we are not going to comment on any matters that come up during that process," spokeswoman Erin Healy said.


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