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Rove Says Writer Supplied Agent’s Name

Times Staff Writer

White House senior advisor Karl Rove reportedly has told federal investigators that it was a newspaper columnist, rather than official sources, who told him the name of a covert CIA operative whose identity was later revealed in the media, touching off a criminal inquiry.

Rove, a White House deputy chief of staff, told investigators that syndicated columnist Robert Novak gave him the name of the operative, Valerie Plame, a person familiar with his testimony said Friday.

Novak later published Plame’s name and said she worked for the CIA. His report, and those of several other journalists, provoked a federal investigation into whether Bush administration officials broke a federal law that protected the identities of covert operatives.

Rove’s conversation with Novak, first reported by the New York Times, is significant because it marks the second time that the White House aide has acknowledged speaking with a journalist about Plame in the days before her identity was unmasked in newspaper reports in July 2003.

Those contacts have ignited controversy, because they are seen by Democrats and others as part of a campaign by White House officials to dish out retribution to an administration critic, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who is married to Plame and had publicly questioned the administration’s rationale for going to war against Iraq.

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At the same time, Rove’s statements to investigators could provide a legal defense to charges that he violated the law that protects covert agents.

That law makes it a crime to intentionally disclose identifying information about a covert agent. Rove’s defense appears to be that he was merely trafficking in rumor or gossip, conduct that the law does not appear to cover.

According to the source familiar with Rove’s testimony, Novak called Rove on July 9, 2003, in part to discuss his July 14 column. That article would describe a CIA-backed trip that Wilson, Plame’s husband, had taken to the African nation of Niger in 2002 to assess claims that Iraq was seeking weapons-grade uranium.

Wilson had just written about his trip in an opinion article for the New York Times, which questioned the intelligence the administration was citing to justify the war in Iraq.

In his column, Novak insinuated that the trip was the product of nepotism and had been arranged by Plame and her CIA connections.

In their conversation, and after Novak laid out his writing plans, the source said, Rove indicated that he, too, had heard about the involvement of Wilson’s wife. Rove’s comments to Novak appeared to give the columnist at least indirect confirmation of Plame’s CIA role.

Rove has told investigators that he had heard this information from yet another journalist -- whose identity he has said he could not recall -- and that he had no independent knowledge that Wilson’s wife was an undercover agent.

James Hamilton, Novak’s lawyer, declined to comment on the disclosure.

Rove’s Republican allies came to his defense again on Friday, citing the reports that Rove heard of Plame’s name and her CIA role from reporters.

The Republican National Committee, which has led the defense of Rove by questioning Wilson’s credibility, released new talking points to activists emphasizing that Rove “was a consumer of the information in question -- not a producer.”

Terry Holt, a Republican strategist coordinating with the RNC on its public response, said the new disclosures took the wind out of Democrats’ criticism of Rove.

“It goes a long way towards turning this story around and confirms what more and more Republicans have been thinking for the last several days, which is that it’s all politics,” Holt said.

But Friday’s disclosures left unanswered the question of how Novak got his information about Plame, which he disclosed in his article, quoting “administration sources.”

They also raised questions about Rove’s past statements about the affair.

Rove said in a television interview about Plame last summer that “I didn’t know her name and didn’t leak her name.” Now, by his own admission, Rove knew of the name from Novak before it was published.

Robert Luskin, Rove’s lawyer, said Rove’s statements were not inconsistent. “What Karl was trying to suggest was that he didn’t know her name until he was told her name by a journalist,” Luskin said.

Luskin added that Rove had fully cooperated with investigators.

“He has shared with the special prosecutor everything he knows that is relevant to the investigation,” Luskin said, “and the prosecutor was aware of all of these matters when he assured Karl that he is not a target of the investigation.”

Rove’s conversation with Novak occurred two days before Rove spoke with another reporter, Time magazine White House correspondent Matthew Cooper, who testified Wednesday about that conversation for 2 1/2 hours before a federal grand jury.

On Friday, Associated Press reported that after talking with Cooper, Rove alerted the president’s No. 2 security advisor to the conversation.

“Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he’s got a welfare reform story coming,” Rove wrote in the e-mail to then-Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, according to AP.

“When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger. Isn’t this damaging? Hasn’t the president been hurt?” Rove wrote. “I didn’t take the bait, but I said if I were him I wouldn’t get Time far out in front on this.” AP said the White House had turned the e-mail over to prosecutors.

Rove avoided all comment on the case Friday. But traveling with the president to North Carolina, the advisor seemed to go out of his way to project a business-as-usual demeanor, even kibitzing with a reporter while President Bush toured a textile plant.

“You look like you could use this,” Rove said, as he handed a small bottle of Tylenol PM to a reporter after taking it out of the reporter’s opened backpack.

Bush also declined to talk about the case. On the tarmac at the North Carolina Air National Guard Base in Charlotte, as he prepared to board Air Force One for the flight back to Washington, Bush ignored a reporter’s question about Rove and made a quick, brush-off motion with his left hand.

“As the president said this week, he doesn’t want to prejudge the investigation that needs to proceed,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and other party leaders asked Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Friday to let Congress hold hearings into the controversy regardless of the criminal probe. Duffy insisted that the matter was not emerging as a distraction to Bush’s broader policy agenda.

Rove is a central player in every aspect of the president’s agenda, including the selection of a new Supreme Court justice, the pursuit of a Social Security overhaul and the passage of a new free trade agreement with Caribbean nations.

“Congress is moving forward on the agenda of the American people,” Duffy said. “And that’s what the president is focused on.”

Times staff writers Peter Wallsten, Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.


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