WASHINGTON — Chief presidential adviser Karl Rove testified to a grand jury that he talked with two journalists before they divulged the identity of an undercover CIA officer but that he originally learned about the operative from the news media and not government sources, according to a person briefed on the testimony.
The person, who works in the legal profession and spoke only on condition of anonymity because of grand jury secrecy, told The Associated Press that Rove testified last year that he remembers specifically being told by columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame, the wife of a harsh Iraq war critic, worked for the CIA.
Rove testified that Novak originally called him the Tuesday before Plame’s identity was revealed in July 2003 to discuss another story.
The conversation eventually turned to Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who was strongly criticizing the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence to justify the war in Iraq, the person said.
Rove testified that Novak told him he planned to report in a weekend column that Plame had worked for the CIA, and the circumstances on how her husband traveled to Africa to check bogus claims that Iraq was trying to buy nuclear materials in Niger, according to the source.
Column triggers probe
Novak’s column, citing two Bush administration officials, appeared six days later, touching off a political firestorm and leading to a federal criminal investigation into who leaked Plame’s undercover identity. That probe has ensnared presidential aides and reporters in a two-year legal battle.
Rove told the grand jury that by the time Novak had called him, he believes he had similar information about Wilson’s wife from another member of the news media but he could not recall which reporter had told him about it first, the person said.
When Novak inquired about Wilson’s wife working for the CIA, Rove indicated he had heard something like that, according to the source’s recounting of the grand jury testimony.
Rove told the grand jury that three days later, he had a phone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper and — in an effort to discredit some of Wilson’s allegations — informally told Cooper that he believed Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, though he never used her name, the source said.
An e-mail Cooper recently provided the grand jury shows Cooper reported to his magazine bosses that Rove had described Wilson’s wife in a confidential conversation as someone who “apparently works” at the CIA.
Robert Luskin, Rove’s attorney, said Thursday his client truthfully testified to the grand jury and expected to be exonerated.
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“Karl provided all pertinent information to prosecutors a long time ago,” Luskin said. “And prosecutors confirmed when he testified most recently in October 2004 that he is not a target of the investigation.”
Wilson clarifies comments about wife
In an interview on CNN earlier Thursday before the latest revelation, Wilson kept up his criticism of the White House, saying Rove’s conduct was an “outrageous abuse of power ... certainly worthy of frog-marching out of the White House.”
Wilson also said “my wife was not a clandestine officer the day that Bob Novak blew her identity.”
In an interview Friday, Wilson said his comment was meant to reflect that his wife lost her ability to be a covert agent because of the leak, not that she had stopped working for the CIA beforehand.
His wife’s “ability to do the job she’s been doing for close to 20 years ceased from the minute Novak’s article appeared; she ceased being a clandestine officer,” he said.
Blowing cover illegal
Federal law prohibits government officials from divulging the identity of an undercover intelligence officer. But in order to bring charges, prosecutors must prove the official knew the officer was covert and nonetheless knowingly outed his or her identity.
Rove’s conversations with Novak and Cooper took place just days after Wilson suggested in a New York Times opinion piece that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Democrats continued to sharpen their attacks, accusing Rove of compromising a CIA operative’s identity just to discredit the political criticism of her husband. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other leaders asked Friday that Congress hold hearings regardless of the ongoing criminal probe.
Push to strip Rove of clearance
“In previous Republican Congresses the fact that a criminal investigation was under way did not prevent extensive hearings from being held on other, much less significant matters,” Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert.
On Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada pressed for legislation to strip Rove of his clearance for classified information, which he said President Bush should have done already. Instead, Reid said, the Bush administration has attacked its critics: “This is what is known as a cover-up. This is an abuse of power.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Democrats were resorting to “partisan war chants.”
Pressed to explain its statements of two years ago that Rove wasn’t involved in the leak, the White House refused to do so this week.
“If I were to get into discussing this, I would be getting into discussing an investigation that continues and could be prejudging the outcome of the investigation,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The Associated Press and NBC’s “Today” show contributed to this report.