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

Monday, July 18, 2005

Special Prosecutor's Probe Centers on Rove, Memo, Phone Calls

July 18 (Bloomberg) -- The fate of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may rest with the old Watergate question: What did he know and when did he know it?

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the leaking of a Central Intelligence Agency agent's name is now focused on how Rove, one of President George W. Bush's closest advisers, and other administration officials dealt with a key fact in an equally key memo.

The memo, prepared by the State Department on July 7, 2003, informed top administration officials that the wife of ex-diplomat and Bush critic Joseph Wilson was a CIA agent. Seven days later, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was publicly identified as a CIA operative by syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

On the same day the memo was prepared, White House phone logs show Novak placed a call to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, according to lawyers familiar with the case and a witness who has testified before the grand jury. Those people say it is not clear whether Fleischer returned the call, and Fleischer has refused to comment.

The Novak call may loom large in the investigation because Fleischer was among a group of administration officials who left Washington later that day on a presidential trip to Africa. On the flight to Africa, Fleischer was seen perusing the State Department memo on Wilson and his wife, according to a former administration official who was also on the trip.

In addition, on July 8, 2003, the day after the memo was sent, Novak discussed Wilson and his wife with Rove, who had remained in Washington, according to the New York Times.

The Times quoted an attorney familiar with Fitzgerald's probe as saying that when Novak mentioned Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, Rove said, ``Yeah, I've heard that too.''

Mission to Niger

Three days after that, on July 11, Rove also discussed Wilson and his wife with Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, Cooper said yesterday. Rove told the reporter that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and had a hand in having Wilson sent to Niger in 2002 to check out reports that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium for a nuclear weapons program, Cooper said during an appearance on NBC's ``Meet the Press'' program.

Cooper, who recently testified before the grand jury after a long legal battle to keep his sources secret, said Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis ``Scooter'' Libby, told him the same thing. Cooper said neither Rove nor Libby mentioned Wilson's wife by name.

Bush, in Sept. 30, 2003, comments to reporters, said that ``if somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action.'' His remarks echoed those of his spokesman, Scott McClellan, who had said the day before, ``If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.''

On June 10, 2004, Bush answered ``Yes'' when asked whether he whether he would fire anyone who leaked Plame's name.

Not by Name

Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, has said that Rove mentioned to Cooper that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent but did not identify her by name.

In Time's July 18 edition, Cooper writes that Rove ended their brief telephone conversation by saying, ``I've already said too much.'' Cooper added that he was unsure whether that indicated Rove knew he had revealed information he should not have mentioned, or whether Rove was simply indicating he was pressed for time and had to end the call.

As a result of these facts, the State Department memo has become a central element in Fitzgerald's investigation of how Plame came to be publicly identified as a CIA agent and whether that violated a 1982 law making it a federal crime to divulge the identity of a covert intelligence operative.

The memo was prepared by the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the request of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, according to current and former government officials familiar with Powell's request.

Wilson's Article

Powell asked for it on July 6, 2003, the same day Wilson published an opinion article in the New York Times revealing his trip to Niger and his conclusion that there was no evidence to support the claim that Hussein was seeking uranium there. Wilson went on to accuse the Bush administration of ignoring his findings and similar intelligence to make a case for war in Iraq.

The current and former government officials say that the report reached Powell sometime on July 7. It said Wilson had been approved for the Niger trip by mid-level CIA officials on the recommendation of his wife, a counter-proliferation expert at the spy agency.

A key question will be which officials received the report and when. The special prosecutor has subpoenaed telephone and fax records from Air Force One and the White House.

Inner Circle

Fleischer, who saw the July 7 memo, wasn't part of Bush's inner circle during his tenure as press secretary, while Rove was at the heart of it. Given those facts, it seems highly doubtful that Fleischer would have acted on the information in the memo without the knowledge or approval of Rove and other top-level White House officials.

The July 7 memo was largely a reproduction of an earlier State Department report prepared around June 12. Another key question that Fitzgerald is interested in, according to the grand jury witness and the lawyers familiar with the case, is whether Rove or Libby learned of this earlier report and, if so, shared its content with reporters.

Rove's defenders say the recent revelations in the case -- some of which have emanated from his camp -- serve to exonerate rather than implicate him.

They say those revelations show that Rove was not the original source of Plame's identity for either Novak or Cooper. They note that the 1982 law sets a high bar for prosecution: Fitzgerald would have to prove that the person outing Plame did so knowingly and in awareness that the government was trying to conceal her identity.

Five-Year Window

In addition, the law only makes it illegal to divulge the identity of an agent who worked overseas within the past five years; Plame has lived in the U.S. since 1997.

Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman said yesterday on ``Meet the Press'' that recent newspaper stories ``have the effect of exonerating and vindicating Mr. Rove, not implicating him. That information says Karl Rove was not Bob Novak's source, that Novak told Rove, not the other way around, and it says that Karl warned Matt Cooper about Joe Wilson.''

Others see difficulties in these arguments. They note the inherent contradiction between Rove's testimony to the grand jury that he learned Plame's name from Novak and his statement to Novak during the July 8 phone call that ``I've heard that, too.''

Potential Problem

This points toward a potential problem for Rove in the direction of Fitzgerald's investigation. It now has expanded beyond its original mission -- to determine if the 1982 law was violated -- to encompass whether any White House officials, including Rove and Fleischer, have testified falsely about the case or obstructed justice by trying to cover up their involvement in the leak, according to people familiar with the case who cite a pattern of questioning by Fitzgerald.

In addition, there is strong reason to believe that Fitzgerald is hunting big game, according to several legal experts. They say that is demonstrated by the fact that he has done something that no federal prosecutor has done in 30 years: send a reporter, Judith Miller of the New York Times, to jail for refusing to divulge with whom she spoke about the Wilson-Plame case.

``You wouldn't expect him to go to these lengths unless he thought he had something serious to look at,'' said Randall Eliason, the former chief of the public corruption section at the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington. ``You don't compel reporters to testify or jail reporters unless you have a pretty good reason.''

Tatel's Opinion

That ``pretty good reason'' was highlighted by U.S. Appellate Judge David Tatel in his Feb. 15 opinion concurring that Miller and Cooper must testify in the Plame case.

Tatel noted that the vast majority of the states, as well as the Justice Department, ``would require us to protect reporters' sources as a matter of federal common law were the leak at issue either less harmful or more newsworthy.''

However, he added, ``just as attorney-client communications made for the purpose of getting advice for the commission of a fraud or crime serve no public interest and receive no privilege, neither should courts protect sources whose leaks harm national security while providing minimal benefit to public debate.''


Post a Comment

<< Home