The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation has shifted his focus from determining whether White House officials violated a law against exposing undercover agents to determining whether evidence exists to bring perjury or obstruction of justice charges, according to people briefed in recent days on the inquiry’s status.
Differences have arisen in witnesses’ statements to federal agents and a grand jury about how the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, was leaked to the press two years ago.
According to lawyers familiar with the case, investigators are comparing statements by two top White House aides, Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, with testimony from reporters who have acknowledged talking to the officials.
Although no one has suggested that the investigation into who leaked Plame’s name has been shelved, the intensity of the inquiry into possible perjury charges has increased, according to one lawyer familiar with events who spoke on condition that he not be identified.
Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, and his team have made no decision on whether to seek indictments.
The investigation focused initially on whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, in a campaign to discredit Wilson after he wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times criticizing the Bush administration’s grounds for going to war in Iraq.
The sources said prosecutors were comparing the various statements to the FBI and the grand jury by Rove, who is a White House deputy chief of staff and President Bush’s chief political strategist. In Rove’s first interview with the FBI, he did not mention a telephone conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, according to lawyers involved in the case. Cooper has since said that he called Rove specifically to discuss the matter.
Rove has been interviewed twice by the FBI and has made three appearances before the grand jury, according to lawyers familiar with the case.
Rove was told by prosecutors in October that he was not a target of the inquiry, said his lawyer, Robert Luskin. Rove, through his lawyer, has denied being the source of Plame’s name.
“I am quite sure that if his status has changed, I would be informed about it,” Luskin said Friday. “I am not aware of anything that has come to light that would change the facts in front of the prosecutor that would change that assurance.”
Rove “has, from the beginning, been candid, forthcoming and accurate,” Luskin said. “There has never been any moment when the government, prosecutors or investigators have suggested that they thought he was being anything but truthful or cooperative.”
The investigation’s change in emphasis comes amid indications that Fitzgerald’s inquiry has gone beyond the White House and scrutiny of officials such as Rove and Libby, who is Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff.
A former senior State Department official has acknowledged that he testified before the grand jury in Washington, and a congressional source confirmed that Robert Joseph -- who worked on the White House National Security Council -- told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had been questioned by the special prosecutor. Karen P. Hughes, a former top aide to Bush, also told the committee that she had been questioned, the source said.
In addition, a senior U.S. official said that several State Department officials -- including then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell -- were questioned months ago about the creation and distribution of a classified memo that mentioned Plame. Prosecutors are interested in the memo because it may have been a vehicle for spreading Plame’s name among administration staff members.
Disclosing the identity of a CIA undercover agent is a crime under some circumstances, but legal experts have said that elements of the law make it difficult to prove a violation. Prosecutors could have an easier time winning a conviction under another law that makes it a crime for officials with security clearances to disseminate certain information. According to that statute, it could be a crime to have confirmed that Plame was a CIA agent if she was operating undercover.
Plame was first identified as a CIA operative by syndicated columnist Robert Novak in an article that appeared July 14, 2003 -- eight days after Wilson’s op-ed piece challenged administration claims that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium for its nuclear program from the African nation of Niger.
An official close to the investigation said Fitzgerald was concentrating on what happened in the White House and other parts of the administration in those eight days.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that Rove and Libby were intensely focused on discrediting Wilson during that period. Prosecutors have been told that although lower-level aides routinely handled media inquiries, Rove and Libby began communicating directly with reporters about Wilson, the Times report said.
The CIA requested the inquiry into Plame’s unmasking. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed a special prosecutor in December 2003 and was given wide latitude to conduct his investigation. He is working with FBI agents, a team of attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington and four prosecutors from his Chicago office.
The investigation has led to the jailing of Judith Miller of the New York Times, found in civil contempt for refusing to reveal her sources in inquiring about the Plame case; she did not publish any stories on the matter. Other reporters have testified before the grand jury about conversations with sources after receiving waivers of confidentiality from their sources.
Fitzgerald has asked witnesses not to discuss their grand jury testimony, but the law does not prohibit them from speaking publicly.
Rove and Libby spoke with reporters during the crucial eight-day period when the administration was working to undermine Wilson’s credibility, in part by suggesting that his wife had put his name forward for the fact-finding mission to Niger in early 2002. His assignment was to determine the authenticity of claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from that country for its nuclear program.
Wilson later wrote in the op-ed piece that the claims were likely false and that intelligence cited by the Bush administration to support the invasion of Iraq “was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
According to Luskin, Rove has said that he learned Plame’s name from Novak. Novak has refused to discuss his testimony, but investigators are believed to be focusing on possible variations with Novak’s account.
Writing in Time magazine, Cooper said that he had telephoned Rove to ask about Wilson’s column. But Rove, according to lawyers involved in the case, told the grand jury that Cooper had telephoned him about a welfare issue and that Wilson came up later.
Cooper wrote that Rove had disclosed to him that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, though Rove did not use her name. Cooper said that he did not learn Plame’s name until he read it in the Novak column several days later, or that he might have learned it from a computer search.
Libby, according to a person familiar with events, told investigators that he learned Plame’s name from a reporter, apparently Tim Russert of NBC-TV.
But Russert, who spoke with Fitzgerald last summer after Libby released him from a pledge of confidentiality, said he did not give Plame’s name to Libby, according to a statement issued by NBC at the time.
Cooper wrote in Time that he had also talked to Libby. He said he asked Libby whether he had heard anything about Wilson’s wife dispatching Wilson to Niger, and that Libby replied, “ ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that, too,’ or words to that effect.”
Fitzgerald’s term as special prosecutor expires in October, but it could be renewed if the investigation is not finished.