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Rove revealed agent’s name, reporter says

Times Staff Writer

A former Time magazine reporter said Wednesday that it was President Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove, who first revealed to him that the wife of an administration critic worked for the CIA.

The testimony by Matthew Cooper could help former Vice Presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who is on trial for perjury and obstruction of justice.

As the White House pushed back in the summer of 2003 against questions that former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV was raising about the war in Iraq, Rove divulged that Wilson’s wife was a CIA employee, Cooper testified. It was a day later that he spoke with Libby about Wilson’s wife and that Libby only confirmed information that Rove had already told him, Cooper said.

Libby is charged with lying to investigators about conversations he had with Cooper and two other journalists and thereby obstructing a federal probe into how the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, became public.

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Libby’s lawyers have portrayed him as a scapegoat caught up in the federal investigation about the outing of Plame, an arms-proliferation specialist for the agency. Rove was never charged with any crimes.

Cooper testified on a day when the defense signaled a broadening attack on the government’s media witnesses.

William H. Jeffress Jr., one of Libby’s lawyers, told U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton that the defense planned to call the managing editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, to discredit a former Times reporter, Judith Miller, who completed a second day of testimony Wednesday morning.

Miller gave accounts of three discussions with Libby in which he conveyed to her information about Plame. But the defense intends to show that she misled her editors about those conversations.

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Jeffress said he anticipated that the newspaper would fight the subpoena for Abramson, which could delay the trial.

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said Wednesday that the government expected to finish presenting its case early next week.

The Plame intrigue began to unfold after Wilson wrote an opinion article in the New York Times on July 6, 2003, that attacked the Bush administration for twisting the intelligence it used to go to war in Iraq.

He based his view on a CIA-sponsored trip he had made to Niger to assess whether Iraq had tried to buy weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapons program.

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Bush had declared in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking materials for nuclear weapons in Africa. Wilson wrote that his trip to Niger proved the claim baseless. The White House was soon forced to admit that it should not have included the claim in the Bush address.

Eight days later, Plame’s identity as a CIA operative married to Wilson surfaced in a syndicated column by Robert Novak that raised questions about her role in Wilson’s trip to Africa.

Cooper, then Time magazine’s White House correspondent, began reporting what he saw as a major battle between Wilson and the Bush administration over whether the president had misled the public about the march to war. He subsequently spoke with Rove on July 11.

“He immediately said, ‘Don’t get too far out on Wilson,’ which I took to mean, ‘Don’t lionize Ambassador Wilson, don’t idolize him,’ ” Cooper said, under questioning by Fitzgerald.

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“He said that the director of the CIA had not sent him [to Africa]. The vice president had not been involved in sending him.”

Cooper said he then asked Rove who was involved.

“He said, ‘Like his wife,’ At that point I did not know Wilson had a wife. I said, ‘The wife?’ He said she worked on weapons of mass destruction at the agency,” Cooper said.

“By that, I took it to mean the Central Intelligence Agency, not the Environmental Protection Agency. We talked about it a bit more, he said words to the effect, “I’ve already said too much, I’ve got to go.’ ”

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The next afternoon, Cooper testified, he spoke with Libby by phone as Libby was on his way back from the christening of an aircraft carrier in Virginia with Vice President Dick Cheney. Cooper said he spoke with Libby about the circumstances of the Wilson trip and asked Libby about Rove’s tip about Wilson’s wife.

“Toward the end of the conversation, I asked him what he had heard about Wilson’s wife being involved in sending him to Niger,” Cooper said. “He said words to the effect of, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.’ ”

Cooper said that while he had other notes from the conversation with Libby, he did not write down the exchange about Wilson’s wife.

Jeffress seized on that fact, and Cooper spent most of the afternoon Wednesday fending off accusations that that he had taken sloppy notes of his phone conversation with Libby while “sprawled” on the bed of his Washington home with a laptop after a Saturday of swimming at a local country club.

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“Let’s take a look at some of your note-taking practices,” Jeffress said, launching into an analysis of how Cooper took notes on his laptop, including his apparent propensity to use “and” extraneously and occasionally substitute the letter “r” for the letter “n.” Before long, the defense lawyer was making a case that a sentence fragment in the notes -- “had somethine and about the Wilson thing and not sure if it’s ever” -- could be read to exonerate Libby from playing even a secondary role in confirming information about Plame.

“Isn’t it possible, Mr. Cooper, that what happened here was that Mr. Libby said to you ... ‘Yeah, I’ve heard something about that but I’m not sure it is even true’ ”? Jeffress said.

“Well, sir, that is not my recollection of the conversation,” Cooper replied, saying he did not know what the sentence in his notes meant.

Cooper was the second journalist forced to testify at the federal trial about a source he once considered to be confidential. The New York Times’ Miller had spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to discuss conversations she had with Libby with a grand jury.

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Cooper agreed to talk with investigators about Libby in August 2004 after Libby had given him what he described as a “personal” waiver to discuss the conversation.

Cooper testified that he told Libby at the time that he believed the information he had to give prosecutors would be “exculpatory” for Libby -- apparently because he had spoken with Rove first.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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