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A federal criminal investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name has in large part focused on the truthfulness of statements made to investigators by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, and whether he worked with others to devise a cover story to conceal his role, according to government officials familiar with the probe.

Columnist Robert Novak, who first disclosed Plame's identity in a July 14, 2003, newspaper column, has also been cooperating with investigators for some time, according to the same sources, as I first reported in my blog earlier in the week. But federal investigators have been highly skeptical of Novak's account -- as they have been of Rove's -- and were concerned that the key participants might have devised a cover story in the days shortly after it became known that a criminal investigation had been commenced.

Novak and Rove have claimed that they discussed Plame during a July 8, 2003, telephone conversation, only days before Novak's column appeared revealing Plame's status. According to Novak's account, it was he, not Rove, who first broached the issue of Plame, and Rove simply said that he, too, had heard the same information. Rove's version of events, which was told today in The New York Times and The Washington Post, closely matches Novak's.

Rove, through his attorney, Robert Luskin, has denied that he knew of Plame's covert status with the CIA when he told Novak and a second reporter, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, that Plame worked for the CIA. Investigators have noted Novak's description of Plame in his original column as an "agency operative"; Novak has since said that the use of the phrase was a formulation of his own, and not of his sources.

The distinction as to whether Rove specifically knew whether Plame was a covert CIA operative has been central to the grand-jury investigation of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been conducting the probe because, under the law, a government official can only be prosecuted if that official knew the person's covert status and "that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent."

Novak, through his attorney and assistant, refused to answer inquiries for this article. Luskin did not return phone calls today. On Thursday, President Bush said he would have no comment about anything to do with the criminal investigation until it was completed.

Three days after the July 8, 2003, conversation with Novak, Rove spoke with Cooper. On Wednesday, Cooper testified to the federal grand jury convened to hear evidence in the Plame case. In an internal Time e-mail already made public, Cooper said Rove told Cooper that "Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on [weapons of mass destruction] issues" was behind the selection of Wilson to go overseas to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy material to construct a nuclear weapon.

On Tuesday night, as I was completing a blogging post that disclosed that Novak had been cooperating with federal authorities, I spoke to Luskin and told him that I was preparing a lengthier story detailing Rove's contacts with Novak and others. Luskin asked me to delay publication for a day or two, before deciding on what he wanted to say for the article. He said he would comment for the record regarding what he understood transpired between Rove and Novak. The conversation on Tuesday with Luskin was on the record as well.

Early Friday morning, both the Times and the Post published their accounts of what may have transpired between Novak and Rove, articles that were largely exculpatory to Rove.

The Post account largely relied on a single source, whom it identified as "a lawyer involved in the case." The newspaper also described the lawyer as having "firsthand knowledge of the conversations between Rove and prosecutors."

The unnamed lawyer asserted that Rove had told investigators that he had first learned of Plame from a journalist, but claimed he could not recall the reporter's name. "I don't think that he has a clear recollection," the lawyer was quoted as saying. "He's told them that he believes he may have heard it from a journalist." Asked to name the journalist, the attorney said, "I don't think he's able to identify that, or to identify precisely when he may have heard it."

The unnamed lawyer also told both the Times and the Post that it was Novak who first broached the subject of Plame with Rove, with Novak saying that he had heard that Plame worked for the CIA. Both newspapers quoted the attorney as saying that Rove responded, "I heard that, too."

The coverage underscores the secrecy surrounding Fitzgerald's grand-jury investigation. The few leaks that constitute public knowledge of the investigation's progress have largely come from one side: the defense attorneys'. And what they have to say is oftentimes self-serving, misleading, and in some cases untrue. Their all-too-willing collaborators have been the nation's leading newspapers.

In the meantime, however, what has propelled the investigation -- and led to the extraordinary jailing of the Times' Judith Miller -- has been the strong belief by federal investigators that Rove, Novak, and others may have misled them and the public, and that one or more of the participants may have devised a cover story with others to avoid public or legal culpability.

Murray Waas is an investigative reporter. He will be reporting further about the Plame grand jury on his blog, Whatever Already. Toshiro Sugihara contributed research assistance on this article.

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