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Prosecutor Questions Rove a Fourth Time on CIA Leak

Times Staff Writers

Amid rising anxiety in Republican circles, presidential advisor Karl Rove made a fourth appearance Friday before a federal grand jury investigating the CIA leak case as prosecutors neared a decision on whether to charge Rove or anyone else.

One of President Bush’s oldest and most trusted advisors, Rove spent more than four hours behind closed doors in the federal courthouse in a final attempt by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to clarify his role in the politically charged affair.

Rove left afterward by a side entrance without commenting to reporters. His lawyer later issued a statement saying that Rove had testified voluntarily and had not been notified he was a target in the case, and that the prosecutor had indicated that the appearance would be his last. The statement also said Fitzgerald had told Rove he had not decided whether to seek his indictment.

Rove has come under a cloud of suspicion because of conversations he had with journalists in the summer of 2003 about the CIA’s Valerie Plame days before Plame was identified as a covert operative by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. His appearance before the grand jury Friday was the first since those conversations -- with Novak and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper -- came to light in the summer.

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Friday’s testimony culminated a week in which Fitzgerald signaled he was bringing to a close his 22-month investigation into whether anyone in the Bush White House committed crimes in the naming of Plame. Rove’s testimony followed an appearance Wednesday by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whom Fitzgerald called before the grand jury a second time to answer questions about previously undisclosed conversations she had with vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

With the grand jury that Fitzgerald has been using set to expire in two weeks, there is a growing belief that the prosecutor will announce his findings soon, rather than extend the term of the panel.

Some people close to the case said Fitzgerald’s office had recently asked them questions that suggested he was fact-checking a document, although the nature of the document was unclear. They said he set Friday as a deadline to begin their responses.

The prosecutor could be preparing indictments, or a report detailing why he sees no grounds to bring charges.

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Fitzgerald declined to answer reporters’ questions as he left the courthouse.

It is a felony under federal law to intentionally disclose the name of a covert CIA officer. Defense lawyers believe Fitzgerald might also be considering charges such as false statements, obstruction of justice or mishandling of classified information.

As the legal drama played out, White House spokesman Scott McClellan parried questions in the White House briefing room about the long-running case and how it had affected White House operations.

McClellan declined to answer specific questions but said the White House staff was deliberately ignoring the distractions. He declined to answer questions about whether the president still had full confidence in Rove, referring reporters to previous statements of support.

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Despite that assessment, there is a jittery mood in Republican Washington and a widespread belief that the long-running probe is taking a toll.

Rove has organized the White House in a way that “is Rove-centric,” as one former White House official put it. If he were indicted and had to depart, it would leave a vacuum of power, influence and organization.

The inquiry is also drawing to a close at the worst possible time -- the nadir of the president’s popularity amid woes that include the war in Iraq, complaints over the federal response to hurricanes, and criminal and ethical probes affecting other Republican leaders.

Some believe that Bush’s latest problems -- the response to Hurricane Katrina and nominating a Supreme Court candidate who has alienated the conservative base -- are signs that Rove is absent or distracted.

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Asked about this Friday, McClellan said, “He is continuing to do his duties.”

Rove made several calls to James C. Dobson, who heads the large evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, the weekend before Bush unveiled Harriet E. Miers as his choice for the Supreme Court. Rove has continued making fundraising trips to the South and Midwest. Early in September, Rove was briefly hospitalized, reportedly with kidney stones. Recently he has been traveling with his family, his lawyer said in an interview.

The former White House official said that his colleagues see Rove as a man who frequently survives close calls and that until recently few contemplated the possibility of his indictment.

“Karl is the guy known for pulling the rabbit out of the hat, snatching victory from defeat, winning the closest elections,” he said. The official said that if Rove were indicted he would have to step down and would likely be replaced by “two or three people” who might have to reorganize the West Wing.

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Other GOP insiders have suggested in private conversations that Bush might turn to Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman who in recent weeks has shepherded Bush’s Supreme Court nominees and coordinated support for an immigration plan.

Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement Friday that Fitzgerald “has not advised Mr. Rove that he is a target of the investigation and affirmed that he made no decision concerning charges. The Special Counsel has indicated that he does not anticipate the need for Mr. Rove’s further cooperation.”

Luskin added in the statement that, at Fitzgerald’s request, Rove would not discuss the substance of his testimony.

The revelations that Rove talked with reporters about Plame came after he had denied knowing Plame’s identity or leaking it to anyone.

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Fitzgerald has been examining whether the White House exposed Plame in an effort to discredit her husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson criticized the administration for the intelligence it used to launch the war in Iraq in a July 6, 2003, op-ed piece in the New York Times. Plame’s name surfaced eight days later in a Novak column, and in a subsequent article on Time.com.


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