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

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Seattle Times: Nation & World: Rove under cloud of suspicion but still privy to top-secret data

By Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — An intelligence analyst temporarily lost his top-secret security clearance because he faxed his résumé using a commercial machine.

The clearance of a Defense Department employee was suspended for months because a jilted boyfriend called to say she might not be reliable.

An Army officer who spoke publicly about intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks saw his clearance revoked over questions about $67 in personal charges to a military cellphone.

But in the White House, where top adviser Karl Rove is under federal investigation for his role in the exposure of a covert CIA officer, the longtime aide to President Bush continues to enjoy full access to government secrets.

That is drawing the attention of intelligence experts and prominent conservatives as a debate brews over whether Rove should retain his top-secret clearance and remain in his post as White House deputy chief of staff, even as Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald considers whether to charge him with a crime in connection with the agent's exposure.

"The agencies can move without hesitating when they even suspect a breach of the rules has occurred, much less an actual breach of information," said Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has represented more than three dozen intelligence officers in security-clearance cases, including those cited above.

If Rove's access to classified information was canceled, it would prevent him from doing much of his job. His wide portfolio includes domestic and foreign policy, and he is at the president's side often during the day. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., joined Democrats last week in questioning whether Rove should retain his policy-making post.

Bush has resisted demands in recent days from Democrats and other administration critics that he revoke Rove's security clearance or fire him, deferring comment until Fitzgerald finishes his inquiry. But there were signs this weekend that the White House was sensitive to the issue: It has scheduled a series of staff "refresher lectures" on ethics and classified information.

Several intelligence experts and a prominent conservative said in interviews that the White House should take the question of security clearance much more seriously.

Some said that whether or not Rove is charged with a crime, he might have violated policies governing how officials are expected to treat classified information.

High level of clearance

Rove, like all White House employees granted security clearance, was required to sign a "Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement" acknowledging that "unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention, or negligent handling of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation," according to a blank form posted on a federal-government Web site.

The form also notes, "I have been advised that any breach of this Agreement may result in the termination of any security clearances I hold; removal from any position of special confidence and trust requiring such clearances; or the termination of my employment or other relationships with the Departments or Agencies that granted my security clearance or clearances."

Every employee given a secret, top secret, or higher clearance is also required to undergo several hours of special training on how to deal with classified information.

Rove is said to have one of the highest levels of clearance. The level held by senior White House officials is a special subset within the group cleared to see "top secret" documents. This high clearance is called "TS/SCI" clearance, which stands for Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information.

A former White House official described going to a conference room in the Old Executive Office Building soon after joining the staff to get in-person training from federal agents who emphasize the need to take care with secret information. The former official was warned not to discuss any classified information learned on the job with people outside the complex who might not have the same clearance.

Each employee was asked to sign the nondisclosure agreement after the training, and then given a booklet explaining the rules, including prohibitions against providing classified information — or even confirming it — to reporters.

A briefing booklet typically given to government employees when they receive their security clearance states that an official cannot confirm information that is classified, even if it has been published in a newspaper article.

Fitzgerald is investigating whether Rove and other administration officials broke the law by disclosing CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity as part of an effort to discredit her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, who emerged in 2003 as a critic of Bush's Iraq policies.

Wilson had undertaken a mission to Niger for the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear weapons, and found little evidence of that.

It is a felony to knowingly disclose the name of a covert agent, and the prosecutor has not charged anyone with that crime.

But Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was indicted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and giving false statements to investigators. Libby resigned and pleaded not guilty.

Fitzgerald has said his inquiry is continuing, focused at least partly on Rove.

"I've already said too much"

Rove has maintained through his lawyer that he did nothing wrong in this case. While he has acknowledged discussing Plame with journalists on at least two occasions, he has said that he did not know her name or covert status at the time.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper has testified that he learned about Wilson's wife from a July 11, 2003, conversation in which Rove told him that she was "responsible" for Wilson's trip to Niger. Cooper said Rove did not mention Plame by name or mention her covert status.

The Libby indictment also indicates that Rove spoke with syndicated columnist Robert Novak before his July 14, 2003, column cited two unnamed administration officials linking Plame to her husband's trip, the first time Plame's name made it into print. The indictment says that on July 10 or 11, 2003, "Official A" — later identified by sources as Rove — told Libby that he had spoken with Novak. "Libby was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson's wife," the indictment says.

Rove's lawyers have maintained that he breached no law because he learned Plame's name from journalists and did not know of her covert status. A source close to Rove defended the aide's actions, saying Saturday: "There has been no determination by anybody that Karl disclosed classified information. There's news reports about events, but there's been no formal finding by anyone that classified information was divulged."

Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration who as a Senate lawyer helped write the 1982 law protecting undercover agents, said there was no evidence that Rove violated either the law or the nondisclosure agreement. She said Rove or any official must know the information is classified before he can be punished for a disclosure.

Some administration allies argue that it was "common knowledge" that Plame worked at the CIA. If that's the case, Toensing said, "You wouldn't think that it's classified."

But there are hints that Rove might have known he was dealing with classified information in his conversation with Cooper. Recounting that phone conversation in Time magazine, Cooper said his notes and e-mails "indicate that Rove told me material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson's mission and his findings." He remembered Rove ending the call by saying, "I've already said too much."

"Terminal consequences"?

Intelligence experts and even some prominent conservatives say that the fate of Rove's security clearance should not depend on Fitzgerald's conclusions, and that the White House should err on the side of caution rather than technical questions of Rove's legal culpability.

"This president, who has raised to the top of the priority list the issue of national security, certainly should be concerned if any evidence has been developed that would indicate misuse of classified information by any member of his team, certainly somebody as high as Mr. Rove," said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia and a former CIA agent and federal prosecutor.

Barr said the Justice Department should examine Rove's actions, apart from the Fitzgerald probe, to determine whether Rove's security classification should be stripped.

Another leading conservative, William F. Buckley Jr., a covert agent in the 1950s in Mexico, said in his National Review column last week that disclosing the identity of a covert agent could carry "terminal consequences."

Buckley did not directly address the Rove matter but wrote, "In the swirl of the Libby affair, one loses sight of the real offense, and it becomes almost inapprehensible what it is that Cheney/Libby/Rove got themselves into. But the sacredness of the law against betraying a clandestine soldier of the republic cannot be slighted."

Democrats, led by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in the House and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the Senate, have called repeatedly for the revocation of Rove's clearance. Intelligence experts don't go that far but want to know more.

Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was director of the CIA during the Carter administration, said Rove's actions have "got to be fully aired" and reviewed by intelligence and Justice Department officials.

Turner acknowledged that revoking or suspending Rove's secret clearance would "almost certainly end his usefulness as a top White House aide" and would be a "drastic step." But he said, "You can't hold lower-level people accountable for possible leaks and not act when leaks occur at a higher level."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.


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