Rove’s Security Clearance Widely Questioned

Times Staff Writers

An intelligence analyst temporarily lost his top-secret security clearance because he faxed his resume using a commercial machine.

An employee of the Defense Department had her clearance suspended for months because a jilted boyfriend called to say she might not be reliable.

An Army officer who spoke publicly about intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks had his clearance revoked over questions about $67 in personal charges to a military cellphone.


But in the White House, where Karl Rove is under federal investigation for his role in the exposure of a covert CIA officer, the longtime advisor to President Bush continues to enjoy full access to government secrets.

That is drawing the attention of intelligence experts and prominent conservatives as a debate brews over whether Rove should retain his top-secret clearance and remain in his post as White House deputy chief of staff -- even as Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald mulls over whether to charge him with a crime in connection with the operative’s exposure.

“The agencies can move without hesitating when they even suspect a breach of the rules has occurred, much less an actual breach of information,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington attorney who has represented more than three dozen intelligence officers in security clearance cases, including those cited above.

If Rove’s access to classified information were taken away, it would prevent him from doing much of his job. His wide portfolio includes domestic policy and national security issues, and he is at the president’s side often during the day.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) joined Democrats last week in questioning whether the advisor should retain his policymaking post.

Bush has resisted demands in recent days from Democrats and other administration critics that he revoke Rove’s security clearance or fire him; he says he is deferring comment until Fitzgerald finishes his inquiry. But there were signs this weekend that the White House was sensitive to the charge: It has scheduled a series of staff refresher lectures on ethics and classified information.

Several intelligence experts and a prominent conservative said in interviews that the White House should take the question of security clearance much more seriously.

Some said that whether or not Rove was ultimately charged with a crime, he might have violated policies governing how officials are expected to treat classified information.

Rove, like all White House employees granted security clearance, was required to sign a “Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement” acknowledging that “unauthorized disclosure, unauthorized retention or negligent handling of classified information by me could cause damage or irreparable injury to the United States or could be used to advantage by a foreign nation,” according to a blank form posted on a federal website.

The form also notes, “I have been advised that any breach of this agreement may result in the termination of any security clearances I hold; removal from any position of special confidence and trust requiring such clearances; or the termination of my employment or other relationships with the departments or agencies that granted my security clearance or clearances.”

Every employee given a secret, top-secret or higher clearance is also required to undergo several hours of training on dealing with classified information.

Rove is said to have one of the highest levels of clearance. The level held by senior White House officials is a special subset within the group cleared to see top-secret documents. This high clearance is called TS/SCI clearance -- which stands for Top-Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information.

A former White House official described going to a conference room in the Old Executive Office Building soon after joining the staff to watch an instructional video and get in-person training from federal agents who emphasize the need to take care with secret information. The former official was warned not to discuss any classified information learned on the job with those outside the complex who might not have the same clearance.

Each employee was asked to sign the nondisclosure agreement after the training and given a booklet explaining the rules, which include prohibitions against providing classified information -- or even confirming it -- to reporters.

A briefing booklet typically given to government employees when they receive their security clearance states that an official cannot confirm information that is classified, even if it has been published in a newspaper article.

Fitzgerald is probing whether Rove and other administration officials broke the law by disclosing Valerie Plame’s identity as part of an effort to discredit her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who emerged in 2003 as a critic of Bush’s Iraq policies. Wilson had undertaken a mission to Niger for the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear weapons and found little evidence of it.

It is a felony to knowingly disclose the name of a covert agent, and the prosecutor has not charged anyone with that crime. However, an indictment against Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, charged him with perjury, obstruction of justice and giving false statements to investigators. Libby resigned and last week pleaded not guilty.

Fitzgerald has said his inquiry is continuing, focused at least partly on Rove.

Rove has maintained through his lawyer that he did nothing wrong in this case. Although he has acknowledged discussing Wilson’s wife with journalists on at least two occasions, he has emphasized that he did not know Plame’s name or covert status at the time of those conversations.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified that he had learned about Wilson’s wife from a July 11, 2003, conversation in which Rove told him that Wilson’s wife was “responsible” for the diplomat’s trip to Niger.

Cooper said Rove did not mention Wilson’s wife by name or mention her covert status.

The Libby indictment also indicates that Rove spoke with syndicated columnist Robert Novak before Novak’s July 14, 2003, column, which cited two unnamed administration officials linking Plame to her husband’s trip -- the first time Plame’s name made it into print. The indictment says that on July 10 or 11, 2003, “Official A,” later identified by sources as Rove, told Libby that he had spoken with Novak. “Libby was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson’s wife,” the indictment says.

Rove’s lawyers have maintained that he breached no law because he learned Plame’s name from journalists and did not know of her covert status. A source close to Rove defended the aide’s actions, saying Saturday: “There has been no determination by anybody that Karl disclosed classified information. There’s news reports about events, but there’s been no formal finding by anyone that classified information was divulged.”

Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration who as a Senate lawyer helped write the 1982 law protecting undercover agents, said there was no evidence that Rove had violated either the law or the nondisclosure agreement. She said an official must have known the information was classified to be punished for a disclosure.

Some administration allies argue that it was “common knowledge” that Plame worked at the CIA. If that’s the case, Toensing said, “you wouldn’t think that it’s classified.”

But there are hints that Rove might have known he was dealing with classified information in his talk with Cooper. Recounting that phone conversation in Time magazine, Cooper said his notes and e-mails indicated that Rove told him “material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson’s mission and his findings.” He remembered Rove ending the call by saying, “I’ve already said too much.”

Intelligence experts and even some prominent conservatives say that the fate of Rove’s security clearance should not depend on Fitzgerald’s conclusions -- and that the White House should err on the side of caution rather than on technical questions of Rove’s legal culpability.

“This president, who has raised to the top of the priority list the issue of national security, certainly should be concerned if any evidence has been developed that would indicate misuse of classified information by any member of his team, certainly somebody as high as Mr. Rove,” said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia and a former CIA official and federal prosecutor.

Barr said the Justice Department should examine Rove’s actions, apart from the Fitzgerald probe, to determine specifically whether Rove’s security classification should be stripped.

Another leading conservative, William F. Buckley Jr., a covert agent in the 1950s in Mexico, said in a National Review column last week that disclosing the identity of a covert agent could carry “terminal consequences.” Buckley did not directly address the Rove matter. Still, he wrote, “In the swirl of the Libby affair, one loses sight of the real offense, and it becomes almost inapprehensible what it is that Cheney/Libby/Rove got themselves into. But the sacredness of the law against betraying a clandestine soldier of the republic cannot be slighted.”

Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in the House and Minority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate, have called repeatedly for the revocation of Rove’s clearance. Intelligence experts don’t go that far, but want to know more.

Retired Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was director of the CIA during the Carter administration, said Rove’s actions needed to be “fully aired” and reviewed by intelligence and Justice Department officials.

Turner acknowledged that revoking or suspending Rove’s secret clearance would “almost certainly end his usefulness as a top White House aide” and would be a “drastic step.” But, he said, “you can’t hold lower-level people accountable for possible leaks and not act when leaks occur at a higher level.”

Turner said that among other consequences, the unmasking of an operative makes it difficult for intelligence agents to recruit sources, who may be skeptical of confidentiality pledges.

Jeffrey H. Smith, a general counsel to the CIA during the Clinton administration, said the president had “an obligation to look hard at this, especially because Rove has said he had nothing to do with [the exposure of Plame], and now we know he was discussing it.”

White House officials and Bush himself have declined to publicly address Rove’s security clearance and his future. Bush waved off repeated questions on the subject Friday during his visit to Argentina, saying, “The investigation on Karl, as you know, is not complete.”

But the White House did take steps to quell growing criticism of ethical lapses under a president who campaigned in 2000 on restoring the “honor and dignity” of the office -- scheduling a series of mandatory refresher lectures to be held this week covering ethics and the proper use of classified material.

White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers and her staff will conduct the lectures, which are required for staffers with a security clearance at any level, according to a memo to White House staff released Saturday to reporters traveling with Bush in Latin America. That would apply to Rove. “Your attendance at one of these sessions is mandatory,” the memo says. “There will be no exceptions.”

Leon E. Panetta, a former Army intelligence officer who was White House chief of staff under President Clinton, said the White House was typically populated by staffers who, like Rove, landed there after years of experience in political campaigns, not in military or intelligence positions.

“To be frank,” Panetta said, “I was always a little nervous in the White House about a lot of people who got clearances who were not really fully aware of the impact of dealing with that kind of documentation.”

Times staff writer Edwin Chen, traveling with Bush in Mar del Plata, Argentina, contributed to this report.