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Why the CIA leak investigation is headline news

The attention on White House aide Karl Rove is attention the Bush administration would rather have focused on its agenda. Some of this attention, however, is because of who Karl Rove is, as  NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports tonight.

WASHINGTON — White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is at the eye of a summer media storm. This week, he’s on the cover of both Time and Newsweek. Why is Rove such an inviting target?

First, he is the mastermind of the president's campaign victories. President George W. Bush introduced him as “the architect” at his re-election victory party in Nov. 2004.

Second, Rove is a lightning rod for critics because of his hardball tactics. Marshall Wittman, a former “McCain Republican,” is now a Democrat and an adversary.

“No one practices politics as nasty as Karl,” says Wittman. “No one is as successful as Karl, and no one has as much power as Karl, and that makes him a powerful target for his enemies.”

Third, Rove is now fair game because he now has to answer to Peter Fitzgerald, the independent counsel investigating who first outed Valerie Plame, the CIA officer married to former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson.

Why was protecting Plame’s identity important?

“The fact that she had been undercover for many years,” says former CIA General Counsel Jeffrey Smith, “means that all of the operations she worked on over the years, all of the people she dealt with, were also at risk if it were to become known that she were a CIA covert agent.”

The law protecting Plame and other operatives was passed in 1982 — a response to the assassination of CIA station chief Richard Welch in Athens in 1975, shortly after he'd been exposed in a magazine.

In her 1994 memoir, former first lady Barbara Bush railed against the way Welch's cover had been blown.

Another reason this investigation has caught fire with Rove's critics: It's another way to reopen the debate over whether the White House hyped intelligence, like the claims about uranium from Africa, to justify the war. Depending on what the grand jury decides, that could make this spy story more than just the usual Washington scandal.