If Rove Wasn’t Initial Source of Leak, Who Was?

Times Staff Writer

If Karl Rove was source No. 2, who was source No. 1?

Rove, President Bush’s top political advisor, has survived a bruising week of controversy over his role in the unmasking of a CIA officer. But White House officials and their Republican allies acknowledge that they may face more revelations in the weeks and months to come.

For two years, the White House had insisted that Rove and other aides were not involved in the leaks of information that led to the identification of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer, in a newspaper column.

But last week, evidence surfaced that Rove had, in fact, spoken to reporters about Plame before her name turned up in print. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who had asserted that he and the president knew that Rove was not involved, said he could no longer speak about the case.


Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, has defended his client doggedly, acknowledging that Rove talked with journalists about the case, but insisting that he never knowingly revealed classified information. In fact, Luskin has noted, Rove has suggested that he learned Plame’s name from one of the reporters who called him -- indicating that Rove was not the initial source of the leak.

Those details, lawyers said, add up to a defense for Rove against the federal law that makes it a crime to knowingly reveal the identity of a clandestine CIA officer. Luskin said Rove had been told that he was not a target of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation.

But Rove’s reported assertion that the reporters he talked with already knew about Valerie Plame has focused attention on another question: Who was the original source of the leak?

The answer is not publicly known. Fitzgerald’s investigators have questioned members of the White House press staff, including McClellan; aides to Vice President Dick Cheney, including his powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; and current and former State Department officials -- but none has stepped forward publicly to acknowledge a role in the leak.

The question has some Republicans worried, though.

“There are other shoes to drop here,” warned an advisor to the GOP leadership in Congress, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak freely. “There are people who haven’t come out yet. There could be indictments. And that would cast an entirely different shadow on the matter.”

In public, even as Bush and his aides have refused to comment on the issue, many of their allies have rallied in defense.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who once worked for Rove, declared: “The fact is, Karl Rove did not leak classified information.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called it “a nonstory.”

Frist’s comment reflected the main hope of Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as in the White House: that the leak investigation was sufficiently tangled and obscure that it would fail to capture much public attention -- or would be supplanted by other news.

“As soon as there’s a Supreme Court nomination, this will be knocked off the front pages,” predicted Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Reagan.

Democrats, unsurprisingly, have labored to keep the issue in the news. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco demanded that Bush fire Rove, declaring: “This must end now. Our democracy is at stake.”

The Democratic National Committee churned out three news releases a day, including one that asked: “What is the difference between a family cat and Karl Rove?” (The answer: A Republican congressman once proposed investigating how much money the White House spent on President Clinton’s cat, Socks. Congress has shown no enthusiasm for investigating Rove.)

Privately, though, several Democratic strategists acknowledged that Duberstein could be right, that the complex circumstances of the leak investigation have made it difficult to capture much public attention.

The White House reaction to the charges -- a stolid refusal to comment until the prosecutor’s investigation is complete -- appears designed to do two things: first, to avoid adding fuel to the fire that was ignited by the revelation that Rove, despite earlier denials, was involved; and second, to take advantage of the fact that Fitzgerald’s investigation appears likely to continue for many months before delivering a final report.

The special prosecutor has said in court filings that he is near the end of the active part of his investigation. One recalcitrant witness, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, has been jailed for her refusal to testify before a grand jury, and Fitzgerald has indicated that he still hopes to pressure her into speaking.

Fitzgerald, a career prosecutor, was given no time limit for his work when he was appointed special counsel in 2003.

Rove, who has worked with Bush for decades, is the last of the top aides who ran the president’s successful 2000 campaign to remain in the White House five years later. Associates have described the relationship between the two men as “symbiotic.”

Rove has played a central role in Bush’s effort to make his second term ambitious and effective with legislation on issues such as Social Security and tax reform.

Bush praised Rove as “the architect” of his reelection campaign in 2004, and promoted him to deputy chief of staff, with broad authority over domestic policy issues as well as political affairs.

The leak probe stems from a 2003 article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, which said government officials had identified Plame as the person who suggested that the CIA send her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, on an official fact-finding trip to the west African nation of Niger.

The trip later became a matter of controversy when Wilson began publicly questioning the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Wilson said he was sent to Niger to answer a question from Vice President Dick Cheney about whether Iraq was trying to buy nuclear weapons material there.

Wilson said there was no evidence to support the allegation, and he complained that the administration had ignored his finding.

Administration officials, already stung by charges that they had exaggerated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, have contested almost every aspect of Wilson’s version of events.