Top Bush Aide Rove Won’t Be Charged

Times Staff Writer

Karl Rove, one of President Bush’s most trusted aides, will not be charged in a federal investigation into potential misconduct in the White House, a decision that ends a nearly three-year probe of the political strategist.

The decision by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald -- announced Tuesday by Rove’s lawyer -- would seem to be a huge boost for the Bush administration. It comes as Republicans are gearing up for a midterm election fight in November in which an indictment of Rove, the mastermind of many of the president’s political victories, would have helped fuel the Democratic drive to take the House and Senate.

Robert D. Luskin, Rove’s lawyer, said Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak of a covert CIA agent’s name, informed him of the decision Monday. “We believe that the special counsel’s decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove’s conduct,” Luskin said in a prepared statement.


Fitzgerald was appointed in December 2003 to investigate whether White House officials leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame -- the wife of an administration critic -- in violation of a federal law protecting covert agents.

Rove testified five times before a federal grand jury, most recently on April 26. Fitzgerald had been trying to determine whether Rove lied about conversations he had with a Time magazine reporter who wrote about Plame.

Fitzgerald’s decision brings the curtain down on one of the most closely watched political dramas in recent Washington history: whether Rove might be indicted. Such speculation had become a Washington parlor game and triggered frequent reports on the Internet that he was about to be charged.

“It’s a chapter that has ended,” Bush said on Air Force One as he returned from a surprise visit to Baghdad. “Fitzgerald is a very thorough person. I think he’s conducted his investigation in a dignified way.”

The news was greeted with relief by Republican strategists, who said Rove would be central to helping Bush try to emerge from a long period of sagging approval ratings.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who had lunch with Rove on Tuesday, predicted Rove would be energized. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Norquist said: “Nothing is quite so invigorating as to be shot at without effect. That’s what happened to Karl. It is reasonable to assume that Karl Rove will be a more focused, aggressive and serious combatant having gone through this hazing.”


Democrats said they did not view the decision as an exoneration of Rove, who had acknowledged that he spoke to two journalists in the days before they reported that Plame worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The prosecutor’s decision not to indict Karl Rove does not diminish the fact that Karl Rove was involved in leaking the identity of an intelligence operative during a time of war,” said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party. “Karl Rove does not belong in the White House. If the president valued America more than he valued his connection with Karl Rove, Karl Rove would have been fired a long time ago.”

Luskin said in an interview Tuesday that he received a call and a letter from Fitzgerald on Monday. Luskin declined to make the correspondence public.

At the time, Rove was traveling in New Hampshire with his cellphone turned off, but Luskin said he sent Rove a message on his Blackberry: “Fitzgerald called. Case over.” Luskin said Rove called him back.

“The conversation is personal. He was pleased and relieved,” he said.

The case is rooted in allegations that administration officials twisted prewar intelligence about Iraq. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, was sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to evaluate a claim that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium. He concluded the claim was bogus, but Bush cited it in his 2003 State of the Union address. In a July 6, 2003, op-ed article in the New York Times, Wilson challenged the administration assessment.

Fitzgerald learned that the article provoked an immediate reaction from Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials who sought to undercut Wilson.

Eight days later, columnist Robert Novak, citing two administration sources, reported that Wilson’s wife, Plame, was a CIA operative and had suggested Wilson be sent to Niger.

Several days later, Time magazine’s website also reported on Plame.

Rove and other White House officials denied in the early days of the investigation that they had played a role in outing Plame.

Wilson and Plame, who retired from the CIA last year citing troubles stemming from having her cover blown, indicated through their lawyer Tuesday that they were considering legal action against Rove and other administration officials.

“The day still may come when Mr. Rove and others are called to account in a court of law for their attacks on the Wilsons,” said Christopher Wolf, a lawyer who is advising the family.

Rove’s fate has been the principal unfinished business for Fitzgerald, a career federal prosecutor who made a name in terrorism cases before being named U.S. attorney in Chicago. In October, he secured the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to Cheney. Libby is accused of lying about conversations he had with reporters about Plame and obstructing justice.

Libby, the only official to be charged in the case, is set to be tried in January.

Fitzgerald has been the target of criticism because he has not charged anyone with the crime he was appointed to investigate -- the intentional disclosure of the identity of a covert agent. He also has not publicly revealed the identity of the main source used by Novak.

In addition, the prosecutor has been interested in an unidentified administration official who told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward about Plame. Woodward, who did not write an article, has given a sworn statement to Fitzgerald.

Through a spokesman, Fitzgerald declined to comment Tuesday about Rove or any other facet of the investigation, including whether he was continuing to pursue leads. Most people familiar with the investigation think it has run its course.

Rove came under scrutiny over whether he concealed that he had spoken with a Time magazine correspondent, Matthew Cooper, about Plame a few days before she was publicly identified. Cooper had used Rove as a source for the article he wrote about Plame for the magazine’s website.

During a grand jury appearance in February 2004, Rove testified that he had not spoken with Cooper about Plame. But he changed his testimony eight months later, saying that his memory had been refreshed by an e-mail his lawyer had dug up that referred to his conversation with Cooper.

Rove said the lapse was an oversight.

Fitzgerald tried to determine whether the explanation was credible.

Some observers have speculated that Rove changed his story only after finding out that Cooper had been subpoenaed to testify.

Rove asserted that he had no incentive to hide the truth.

Rove volunteered to FBI agents that he had spoken with Novak about Plame. He said it would make no sense to tell the truth about his conversations with one reporter but shield the truth about his dealings with another. He also said he was aware, even before his first grand jury appearance, that Fitzgerald was seeking information about Cooper through subpoenas.

Rove’s defense may also have been aided by another Time reporter, Viveca Novak, who is not related to the columnist.

Novak said in a sworn statement that she met with Rove’s lawyer, Luskin, in late 2003 or early 2004. She said she told him that Cooper considered Rove a source for his story about Plame. She said Luskin reacted with surprise.

That conversation prompted Luskin to order Rove’s staff to review documents that might show a link between Cooper and Rove. Luskin later turned up the e-mail that Rove said had jogged his memory of the conversation.

Some lawyers said those efforts did not square with the contention that Rove was trying to deceive federal investigators or the grand jury.

“I think the case got very difficult to prove the minute you injected Viveca Novak into the debate,” said Daniel French, a New York lawyer and former federal prosecutor who represented a witness interviewed by Fitzgerald.

“Given the tapestry of contacts that someone like Karl Rove has on a daily basis, what might be memorable to a layman may not be so memorable to a Karl Rove,” French said. “In the end, the explanations were plausible enough for this prosecutor to take a pass.”



Back story

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is investigating White House leaks that disclosed the identity of a covert CIA agent. The agent’s name, Valerie Plame, first appeared in a Robert Novak column on July 14, 2003. A report on Time magazine’s website later also named Plame. Intentionally revealing the name of an undercover agent can be a crime. No one has been charged with violating that 1982 law, but Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was charged with lying and obstruction of justice. He is accused of misleading the FBI and a federal grand jury about conversations he had with journalists about Plame.