Top Aides Reportedly Set Sights on Wilson

Times Staff Writers

Top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were intensely focused on discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV in the days after he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times suggesting the administration manipulated intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq, federal investigators have been told.

Prosecutors investigating whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife, a CIA officer who had worked undercover, have been told that Bush’s top political strategist, Karl Rove, and Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, were especially intent on undercutting Wilson’s credibility, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

Although lower-level White House staffers typically handle most contacts with the media, Rove and Libby began personally communicating with reporters about Wilson, prosecutors were told.


A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove’s interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House. When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove reportedly responded: “He’s a Democrat.” Rove then cited Wilson’s campaign donations, which leaned toward Democrats, the person familiar with the case said.

The disclosures about the officials’ roles illustrate White House concern about Wilson’s July 6, 2003, article, which challenged the administration’s assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase nuclear materials. Wilson’s article appeared as Rove and other Bush aides were preparing the 2004 reelection campaign strategy, which was built largely around the president’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

It is not surprising that White House officials would be upset by an attack like Wilson’s or seek to respond aggressively. But special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is examining whether they or others crossed the legal line by improperly disclosing classified information, or whether they perjured themselves in testifying later about their actions. Both Rove and Libby have testified.

News of the high-level interest in discrediting Wilson comes as White House defenders, most notably officials at the Republican National Committee, argue that Rove has been vindicated of suspicion that he was a primary source of the leak. Knowingly revealing the identity of a covert operative is a federal crime.

Regardless of Rove’s legal liability, the description of his role runs contrary to earlier White House statements that Rove and Libby were not involved in the unmasking of Wilson’s wife, and it suggests they were part of a campaign to discredit Wilson.

Wilson, a career Foreign Service officer who served in Iraq and several African nations, was sent by the CIA in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had attempted to purchase nuclear materials from Niger. His New York Times article declaring that he had found no credible evidence of such an attempt despite the administration’s continued claims that there had been one unleashed charges from White House officials that he was a partisan.

White House officials contended that he had wrongly indicated that he was sent on his mission by Cheney. In fact, Wilson had said in the article that the trip was inspired by questions raised by Cheney’s office.

Eight days after Wilson’s article was published, a syndicated column by Robert Novak questioned the credibility of Wilson’s trip, suggesting that it had been arranged with the help of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, at the CIA.

Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, has cited recent news reports that Rove heard about Wilson’s wife from reporters and that he was not an original source. Those reports said that Rove in fact sought to dissuade Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper -- one of the journalists with whom he discussed Wilson’s wife -- from writing a piece about Wilson’s charge.

“Based on the information that has come out over the last several days, the one thing that’s absolutely clear is that Karl was not the source for the leak and there’s no basis for any additional speculation,” Luskin said.

A White House spokesman, David Almacy, declined to comment Sunday. “This is an ongoing investigation, and we will be happy to talk about this once it is completed, but not until then,” he said.

Prosecutors’ intense questioning of witnesses about Rove and Libby casts doubt on assertions that the president’s longtime political guru was not -- at least at some point -- in Fitzgerald’s sights.

Fitzgerald is expected to conclude his investigation this year with a detailed report.

Bush said he would fire anyone responsible for any illegal leaks. Democrats have called on Bush to fire Rove, now a deputy White House chief of staff, or at least to revoke Rove’s security clearance.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Rove and the White House deserved credit for cooperating with Fitzgerald. “Cooperate, cooperate, cooperate” was the policy, said Mehlman, who once was Rove’s deputy at the White House.

Cooper, who testified last week before Fitzgerald’s grand jury concerning his conversations with White House officials about Wilson, confirmed Sunday that prosecutors showed intense interest in the roles played by Rove and Libby in discussing Wilson’s wife.

In an article in the latest issue of Time magazine titled “What I Told the Grand Jury,” Cooper writes that the grand jurors investigated his interactions with Rove in “microscopic, excruciating detail.”

He says he called Rove after Wilson’s article appeared and asked about it. “I recall saying something like, ‘I’m writing about Wilson,’ before he interjected,” Cooper writes. “ ‘Don’t get too far out on Wilson,’ he told me.”

Cooper writes that his first knowledge of Wilson’s wife came when Rove disclosed on “deep background” that she worked for the CIA, but that he did not learn her name until he read it in Novak’s column several days later.

Novak was the first journalist to identify Plame by name, along with her role as “an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” He wrote that two senior administration officials told him Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger.

“As for Wilson’s wife, I told the grand jury I was certain that Rove never used her name and that, indeed, I did not learn her name until the following week, when I either saw it in Robert Novak’s column or Googled her, I can’t recall which,” Cooper writes. “Rove did, however, clearly indicate that she worked at the ‘agency’ -- by that, I told the grand jury, I inferred that he obviously meant the CIA and not, say, the Environmental Protection Agency. Rove added that she worked on ‘WMD’ (the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction)issues and that she was responsible for sending Wilson. This was the first time I had heard anything about Wilson’s wife.”

In his article, Cooper also recalls that Rove ended their conversation with a cryptic caution: “I’ve already said too much.”

“This could have meant he was worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else,” Cooper writes.

As for Libby, Cooper writes that he told investigators in 2004 about a conversation in which the Cheney advisor seemed to confirm the identity of Wilson’s wife. But the conversation was “on background.” It is not clear from Cooper’s account whether Libby’s response was based on original information or gossip he picked up from other journalists.

“On background, I asked Libby if he had heard anything about Wilson’s wife sending her husband to Niger,” Cooper writes. “Libby replied, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that too,’ or words to that effect. Like Rove, Libby never used Valerie Plame’s name.”

Based on what he was asked in the grand jury, Cooper speculates in his personal account that Fitzgerald might be pursuing Rove -- or, perhaps just as likely, the person or document that provided the information to Rove and other administration officials.

Fitzgerald, Cooper writes, “asked me several different ways if Rove indicated how he had heard that Plame worked at the CIA. (He did not, I told the grand jury.)”

The intensity of Fitzgerald’s inquiry has picked up in recent weeks, particularly since Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller lost a court battle over shielding confidential sources. Cooper agreed to testify, but Miller refused to reveal her source and has been jailed for contempt of court.

Activities aboard Air Force One are also of interest to prosecutors -- including the possible distribution of a State Department memo that mentioned Wilson’s wife. Prosecutors are seeking to find out whether anyone who saw the memo learned Plame’s identity and passed the information to journalists. Telephone logs from the presidential aircraft have been subpoenaed. Among those aboard was former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who has testified.

One of the sources familiar with the investigation said Saturday that prosecutors had obtained a White House call sheet showing that Novak left a message for Fleischer the day after Wilson’s op-ed article appeared and the day Fleischer left with the president for Africa. Fleischer declined to comment for this article but has flatly denied being the source of the leak.

Wilson said in an interview Saturday he had known that Novak was interested in him a week or so before the column appeared. He said a friend who saw Novak on the street reported that Novak told him, “Wilson is an asshole and his wife works for the CIA.”

As for the intensity of White House interest in him after the column, Wilson said: “I am sorry that 6,900 American soldiers have been injured and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and injured all because these guys sent us to war under false pretenses.”

Wilson speculated in a book he wrote last year that it was Libby who was “responsible for exposing my wife’s identity.” Libby has indicated to investigators that he learned the identity of Plame from journalists.

Rove has told investigators the same, although a person familiar with his testimony said that the possibility that Rove learned the information from the journalists indirectly -- possibly even through Libby -- could not be ruled out. The person said Rove simply had no firm recollection.

There have been other indications of a concerted White House action against Wilson. Two days before Novak’s column, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was told by an “administration official” that the White House was not putting much stock in the Wilson trip to Africa because it was “set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction,” according to an account of the conversation Pincus wrote for this summer’s Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

Pincus discussed the substance of the conversation with prosecutor Fitzgerald last fall under an arrangement where Pincus did not have to tell Fitzgerald who the administration source was.

And Fleischer also seemed attuned to a strategy of discrediting Wilson. Two days before Novak revealed Plame’s identity, Fleischer questioned the former envoy’s findings in remarks to reporters during a trip with Bush in Africa.

The transcript of that press gaggle (the term for an informal question-and-answer between reporters and the White House spokesman), which took place in the National Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria, has been requested by the prosecutors.


Times staff writer Richard B. Schmitt contributed to this report.