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In Plame leaks, long shadows

The story Karl Rove told prosecutors about his knowledge of the outing of a CIA officer does not seem to square with the White House's denial that it had played any role in one of the most famous leaks since Watergate.
Chief of staff Andrew Card, left, senior advisor Karl Rove, center, and press secretary Scott McClellan, right, leave the White House, on Tuesday, for a trip to Buffalo, N.Y. and New York City with President Bush. Ron Edmonds / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Karl Rove had a secret.

In public, he was masterminding President Bush's reelection and brushing off suggestions he had played any part in an unfolding drama: the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame. In private, the senior White House adviser was meeting, on five occasions, with federal prosecutors to tell what he knew about the matter.

The story he would tell prosecutors did not seem to square with the White House's denial that it had played any role in one of the most famous leaks since Watergate. Rove told prosecutors he had discussed Plame in passing with at least two reporters, including the columnist who eventually revealed her name and role in a secret mission that would raise questions about Bush's case for war against Iraq. At the same time, other White House officials were whispering about Plame, too.

Tracing the leak
It is now clear: There has been an element of pretense to the White House strategy of dealing with the Plame case since the earliest days of the saga. Revelations emerging slowly at first, and in a rapid cascade over the past several days, have made plain that many important pieces of the puzzle were not so mysterious to Rove and others inside the Bush administration. White House officials were aware of Plame and her husband's potentially damaging charge that Bush was "twisting" intelligence about Iraq's nuclear ambitions well before the episode evolved into Washington's latest scandal.

But as the story hurtles toward a conclusion sometime this year, there are several elements that remain uncertain. The most important — did anyone commit a crime?

This article, based on interviews with lawyers and officials involved in the case, is an effort to step back from the rapidly unfolding events of recent weeks and clarify what is known about the Plame affair and what key factors are still obscure. Those people declined to be identified by name because special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has asked that closed-door proceedings not be discussed.

The yellowcake incident
It all started in the early days of 2002 with Joseph C. Wilson IV, a flamboyant ex-diplomat who had left government for a more lucrative life of business consulting. Wilson was a veteran of the diplomatic wars of Iraq and Africa, so it seemed logical to some in the CIA, including his wife, Plame, to send him on a secret mission to Niger. Wilson's task was to determine if Iraqis had tried to purchase yellowcake uranium from Africa to build nuclear weapons.

To a Bush administration intent on selling the American public on war based on the threat posed by Iraq's weapons program, the yellowcake was no small deal. The White House would soon cite it as evidence that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear weapons.

Wilson spent a week in Niger chatting with locals about the allegation, coming to the conclusion that the yellowcake charges were probably unfounded. He reported his findings to the agency — but they never made their way to the White House.

The story might have ended there, but Bush, Vice President Cheney and other officials decided to make the yellowcake charges a central piece of the administration's evidence in arguing Hussein had designs on a dangerous program of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs. On the march to war, Bush officials rebuffed concerns from some at the CIA and included in his January 2003 State of the Union the now-famous 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Wilson was floored, then furious.

Wilson set out to discredit the charge, working largely through back channels at first to debunk it. He called friends inside the government and the media, and told the New York Times's Nicholas D. Kristof of his findings in Niger. Kristof aired them publicly for the first time in his May 6, 2003, column but did not name Wilson. This caught the attention of officials inside Cheney's office, as well as others involved in war planning, according to people who had talked with them.

Defending the war
The White House, hailing the lightning-quick toppling of Hussein, suddenly found itself on the defensive at home over its WMD claims. It was not just Wilson, but Democrats, reporters and a few former officials who were publicly wondering if Bush had led the nation to war based on flimsy, if not outright false, intelligence.

Administration officials set out to rebuff their critics, Wilson in particular. By the time The Washington Post published Wilson's allegation questioning the intelligence (but not citing his name) on the front page on June, 12, 2003 — one month before the Plame affair was public — Wilson was on the administration's radar screen.

The more Wilson pushed, the more the White House was determined to push back against a man they regarded as an irresponsible provocateur.

Up until this point, Wilson had worked mostly behind the scenes, but on July 6, he penned an op-ed in the New York Times, writing, "Some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons programs was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." A story detailing the allegation also appeared that day inside The Post as Wilson appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

On the offensive
The White House response was swift. There is a simple rule in politics: Kill a story before it kills you. The Bush team spread word to reporters that Wilson was a Democrat, a supporter of Bush's political opponents who was sent on an inconclusive mission that people in power knew nothing of.

Then, they went a step further.

Two days after Wilson went public, columnist Robert D. Novak told Rove that he was hearing that Wilson had been sent on the mission at the suggestion of his wife, who was working in the CIA, a lawyer familiar with the conversation said. "I heard that, too," Rove replied, according to the lawyer. Rove said Novak had told him Plame's name and that that was the first time he had heard it, the lawyer said.

That could be seen as being at odds with Rove's comments to CNN on Aug. 31, 2004, when he said, "I'll repeat what I said to ABC News when this whole thing broke some number of months ago. I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name."

Hunting for the source
On July 7, Bush took off for a trip to Africa. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was on the trip, carried with him a memo containing information about Plame, as well as other intelligence on the yellowcake claim. It is on this trip that, prosecutors believe, some White House aides might have learned about Plame.

The origin of the Plame information is central to the case. Prosecutors are trying to determine if White House officials shared information about Plame based on the State Department memo, or from conversation with reporters, as Rove has testified, or somewhere else. If it turns out Plame's identity was learned from the memo, it would undermine the GOP defense that Rove and other administration officials were simply discussing information they had learned from reporters.

Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said he can say "categorically" that Rove did not obtain any information about Plame from any confidential source, such as a classified document. A lawyer familiar with Rove's testimony hedged a bit on who precisely told Rove about Plame, saying it may have come secondhand from another aide, as well as from Novak.

Full court press
In Washington, Rove and others were discrediting Wilson's story even as then-CIA director George J. Tenet said that the yellowcake allegation should never have been included in Bush's speech. "This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed," Tenet said in a July 11 statement.

In a conversation that same day, Rove told Time magazine's Matthew Cooper that Wilson's wife was in the CIA and authorized the mission to Niger; but he did not use her name. Afterwards, Rove e-mailed then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to tell him he had waved Cooper off Wilson's claim.

A day later, Cheney's top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, told Cooper he had heard the same thing about Plame, and a senior administration official flagged the role of Wilson's wife, almost in passing, to The Washington Post's Walter Pincus.

On July 14, Novak's column ran, naming Plame for the first time and saying two senior administration officials had provided him the information. The White House anti-Wilson campaign continued, but legally it did not matter, because once Plame's name was in the public domain, Rove and others were free to gossip about her.

White House offers public denials
Rove told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Plame was fair game, even as White House spokesman Scott McClellan was denying any White House role in the leak. "I'm telling you flatly that that is not the way this White House operates," the spokesman told reporters July 22. McClellan was usually careful to stress involvement in any illegal leak, though his public statements clearly left an impression of a White House aloof to the affair.

CIA officials believed that the revealing of Plame's identity was a potential crime and contacted the Justice Department to investigate. CIA officials maintain that Plame never ordered up the trip.

It is not clear when the White House realized Plame might have been a covert operative, but Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for an FBI probe 10 days after the Novak column was published. It would be a crime to reveal her name only if a government official knew that Plame had covert status and knew that the government was actively concealing her identity.

The uproar over the leak was ephemeral, as the story seemed to wilt in the summer heat. But in late September, a senior White House official was quoted as telling The Post at least six reporters had been told of Plame before Novak's column, "purely and simply out of revenge." Two days later, Bush was told that the Justice Department was investigating whether someone had unlawfully leaked the identity of an undercover agent.

Leak becomes a federal case
Chicago U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald was named special counsel three months later, setting in motion an aggressive investigation that would soon force about a dozen administration officials to testify, compel the Supreme Court to consider the age-old question of how much protection a reporter can provide a source, and land one reporter, the New York Times's Judith Miller, behind bars for refusing to testify. Her role remains a mystery, because she never wrote a story.

Fitzgerald subpoenaed White House phone records and e-mails, guest lists for parties and information about the State Department memo reportedly brought aboard Air Force One. What started out as a simple investigation into a leak evolved slowly at first, swiftly in the early days of 2004, into a wider probe of other potential illegalities. Bush and Cheney were asked to talk to investigators informally, while a parade of officials from Powell to Rove to McClellan appeared before the grand jury.

Lawyers who have sat in on the prosecutors' interviews said Fitzgerald cast a wide net, adopting a broad view of the case. Some witnesses were asked only about the initial disclosure, others about possible misstatements during the investigative phase. Some were brought in several times. Rove, for example, was grilled by FBI agents twice in formal meetings and asked to respond to questions in informal settings, and appeared three times before the grand jury — all between October 2003 and October 2004, said a person familiar with his testimony.

Reporters obtained releases from sources such as Libby to discuss confidential conversations, while others refused. Cooper and Miller, in a case that reached and was rejected by the Supreme Court, refused to reveal sources and were held in contempt. Cooper was released by Rove to talk; Miller is sitting in an Alexandria jail.

The showdown over sources has already impeded at least two major media outlets. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, fearing criminal prosecution, has decided against publishing two investigative pieces not related to the Plame controversy because they were based on anonymous leaks. And Time reporters have said that at least two sources have told them they would no longer provide information because the company turned over documents in the Plame case.

As for the Bush administration, the investigation has exposed how an administration that publicly deplores leaking has engaged aggressively in the practice to advance its goals.

Yet much of the case remains a mystery. Did the White House leak the identity of a CIA operative? Is it a crime? Did Bush have any knowledge of it? Will Fitzgerald have spent this much time pressuring officials and reporters and not deliver an indictment? Those questions may be answered soon, as the grand jury's term is set to expire in October.