At White House, a Day of Silence on Rove's Role in C.I.A. Leak
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
Published: July 12, 2005
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WASHINGTON, July 11 - Nearly two years after stating that any administration
official found to have been involved in leaking the name of an undercover
C.I.A. officer would be fired, and assuring that Karl Rove and other senior
aides to President Bush had nothing to do with the disclosure, the White
House refused on Monday to answer any questions about new evidence of Mr.
Rove's role in the matter.
With the White House silent, Democrats rushed in, demanding that the
administration provide a full account of any involvement by Mr. Rove, one of
the president's closest advisers, turning up the political heat in the case
and leaving some Republicans worried about the possible effects on Mr.
Bush's second-term agenda.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, cited Mr. Bush's
statements about firing anyone involved in the leak and said, "I trust they
will follow through on this pledge."
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Mr. Rove, given his
stature and the principles involved in the case, could not hide behind legal
advice not to comment.
"The lesson of history for George Bush and Karl Rove is that the best way to
help themselves is to bring out all the facts, on their own, quickly," Mr.
Schumer said, citing the second-term scandals that have beset previous
In two contentious news briefings, the White House press secretary, Scott
McClellan, would not directly address any of a barrage of questions about
Mr. Rove's involvement, a day after new evidence suggested that Mr. Rove had
discussed the C.I.A. officer with a Time magazine reporter in July 2003
without identifying her by name.
Under often hostile questioning, Mr. McClellan repeatedly declined to say
whether he stood behind his previous statements that Mr. Rove had played no
role in the matter, saying he could not comment while a criminal
investigation was under way. He brushed aside questions about whether the
president would follow through on his pledge, repeated just over a year ago,
to fire anyone in his administration found to have played a role in
disclosing the officer's identity. And he declined to say when Mr. Bush
learned that Mr. Rove had mentioned the C.I.A. officer in his conversation
with the Time reporter.
When one reporter, David Gregory of NBC News, said that it was "ridiculous"
for the White House to dodge all questions about the issue and pointed out
that Mr. McClellan had addressed the same issues in detail in the past, Mr.
McClellan replied, "I'm well aware, like you, of what was previously said,
and I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time."
A moment later, Terry Moran of ABC News prefaced his question by saying Mr.
McClellan was "in a bad spot here" because he had spoken from the same
podium on Oct. 10, 2003, after the Justice Department began its formal
investigation into the leak, and specifically said that neither Mr. Rove nor
two other officials - Elliot Abrams, a national security aide, and I. Lewis
Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff - were involved.
Mr. McClellan disputed the characterization of the question but did not
directly address why the White House had appeared now to have adopted a new
policy of not commenting on the matter.
Mr. Rove made no public comment. A senior administration official, who spoke
on the condition of anonymity because the White House now says its official
position is not to comment on the case while it is under investigation by a
federal special prosecutor, said Mr. Rove had gone about his business as
usual on Monday. The official said Mr. Rove had held his regular meetings
with Mr. Bush and other top White House aides, and was deeply involved in
preparations for the Supreme Court nomination and efforts to push several
major pieces of legislation through Congress this month.
The officer was first publicly identified under her maiden name as Valerie
Plame, "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction," on July 14,
2003, by the syndicated columnist Robert Novak. He wrote that Ms. Plame was
the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had recently written an Op-Ed article
for The New York Times disputing an administration claim about Saddam
Hussein's nuclear program. Mr. Novak cited "two senior administration
officials" as the source of his information.
The criminal investigation into how the C.I.A. officer's name came to appear
in a syndicated newspaper column two years ago continued largely out of
public view. But the recent disclosure of evidence that Mr. Rove had,
without naming Ms. Plame, told a Time reporter about the same time that Mr.
Wilson's wife "works at the agency," thrust the case squarely back into the
political arena. That reflected Mr. Rove's standing as among the most
powerful men in Washington and his place in the innermost councils of the
Because of the powerful role Mr. Rove plays in shaping policy and deploying
Mr. Bush's political support and machinery throughout the party, few
Republicans were willing to discuss his situation on the record. Asked for
comment, several Republican senators said on Monday that they did not know
enough or did not want to venture an opinion.
But in private, several prominent Republicans said they were concerned about
the possible effects on Mr. Bush and his agenda, in part because Mr. Rove's
stature makes him such a tempting target for Democrats.
"Knowing Rove, he's still having eight different policy meetings and
sticking to his game plan," said one veteran Republican strategist in
Washington who often works with the White House. "But this issue now is
looming, and as they peel away another layer of the onion, there's a lot of
consternation. Rove needs to be on his A game now, not huddled with lawyers
and press people."
A senior Congressional Republican aide said most members of Congress were
still waiting to learn more about Mr. Rove's involvement and to assess
whether more disclosures about his role were likely.
"The only fear here is where does this go," the aide said. "We can't know."
Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser, deputy chief of staff and political
strategist, was plunged back into the center of the matter on Sunday, when
Newsweek reported that an e-mail message written by a Time reporter had
recounted a conversation with Mr. Rove in July 2003 in which Mr. Rove
discussed the C.I.A. operative at the heart of the case without naming her.
Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, has said the e-mail message showed that
Mr. Rove was not taking part in any organized effort to disclose Ms. Plame's
identity. Mr. Wilson is a former diplomat who traveled to Africa on behalf
of the C.I.A. before the Iraq war to investigate reports concerning Saddam
Hussein's efforts to acquire nuclear material.
Mr. Wilson has suggested that the White House sought retribution by publicly
identifying his wife, effectively ending her career as a covert operative.
Mr. Wilson has at times voiced suspicions that Mr. Rove played a role in
identifying his wife to reporters, saying in August 2003 that he was
interested in finding out "whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched
out of the White House in handcuffs."
In September 2003, Mr. McClellan said flatly that Mr. Rove had not been
involved in disclosing Ms. Plame's name. Asked about the issue on Sept. 29,
2003, Mr. McClellan said he had "spoken with Karl Rove," and that it was
"simply not true" that Mr. Rove had a role in the disclosure of her
identity. Two weeks earlier, he had called suggestions that Mr. Rove had
been involved "totally ridiculous." On Oct. 10, 2003, after the Justice
Department opened its investigation, Mr. McClellan told reporters that Mr.
Rove, Mr. Abrams and Mr. Libby had nothing to do with the leak.
Mr. McClellan and Mr. Bush have both made clear that leaking Ms. Plame's
identity would be considered a firing offense by the White House. Mr. Bush
was asked about that position most recently a little over a year ago, when
he was asked whether he stood by his pledge to fire anyone found to have
leaked the officer's name. "Yes," he replied, on June 10, 2004.
Under some circumstances, it can be against the law to disclose the identity
of a covert C.I.A. operative. Mr. Luskin has said he has been told by the
prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, that Mr. Rove is not a target of the
Democrats, as the minority party in both the House and the Senate, have no
ability to push forward with a formal Congressional investigation. But Mr.
Rove is such a high-profile political target that his role is sure to draw
intense scrutiny from both Democrats in Congress and liberal interest
Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the
House Government Reform committee, called for hearings on what he termed
"this disgraceful incident," saying that if it had happened in the Clinton
administration the Republican-controlled House would certainly have summoned
the deputy White House chief of staff to testify.
Mr. Rove has been caught up in the inquiry almost from the start. He was
first interviewed by F.B.I. agents in 2003 during the preliminary
investigation. Later, he was interviewed by prosecutors and testified three
times to the grand jury.
The prosecutor is believed to have questioned Mr. Rove at the grand jury
about his conversations with the Time reporter, Matthew Cooper, whose call
to Mr. Rove on July 11, 2003, was noted in a White House log that was turned
over to the prosecutor. Time turned Mr. Cooper's notes and e-mail over to
the prosecutor last month under court order.
The 1982 law that makes it a crime to disclose the identities of covert
operatives is not easy to break. It has apparently been the basis of a
single prosecution, against Sharon M. Scranage, a C.I.A. clerk in Ghana who
pleaded guilty in 1985 to identifying two C.I.A. agents to a boyfriend.
A prosecutor seeking to establish a violation of the law has to establish an
intentional disclosure by someone with authorized access to classified
information. That person must know that the disclosure identifies a covert
agent "and that the United States was taking affirmative measures to conceal
such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." A
covert agent is defined as someone whose identity is classified and who has
served outside the United States within the last five years.
"We made it exceedingly difficult to violate," Victoria Toensing, who was
chief counsel to the Senate intelligence committee when the law was enacted,
said of the law.
The e-mail message from Mr. Cooper to his bureau chief describing a brief
conversation with Mr. Rove, first reported in Newsweek, does not by itself
establish that Mr. Rove knew Ms. Wilson's covert status or that the
government was taking measures to protect her.
Based on the e-mail message, Mr. Rove's disclosures are not criminal, said
Bruce S. Sanford, a Washington lawyer who helped write the law and submitted
a brief on behalf of several news organizations concerning it to the appeals
court hearing the case of Mr. Cooper and Judith Miller, a reporter for The
New York Times. Ms. Miller has gone to jail rather than disclose her source.
"It is clear that Karl Rove's conversation with Matt Cooper does not fall
into that category" of criminal conduct, Mr. Sanford said. "That's not
'knowing.' It doesn't even come close."
There has been some dispute, moreover, about just how secret a secret agent
Ms. Wilson was.
"She had a desk job in Langley," said Ms. Toensing, who also signed the
supporting brief in the appeals court, referring to the C.I.A.'s
headquarters. "When you want someone in deep cover, they don't go back and
forth to Langley."