Plugging Leaks

President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, told the FBI in an interview last October that he circulated and discussed damaging information regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame with others in the White House, outside political consultants, and journalists, according to a government official and an attorney familiar with the ongoing special counsel's investigation of the matter.

But Rove also adamantly insisted to the FBI that he was not the administration official who leaked the information that Plame was a covert CIA operative to conservative columnist Robert Novak last July. Rather, Rove insisted, he had only circulated information about Plame after it had appeared in Novak's column. He also told the FBI, the same sources said, that circulating the information was a legitimate means to counter what he claimed was politically motivated criticism of the Bush administration by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Rove and other White House officials described to the FBI what sources characterized as an aggressive campaign to discredit Wilson through the leaking and disseminating of derogatory information regarding him and his wife to the press, utilizing proxies such as conservative interest groups and the Republican National Committee to achieve those ends, and distributing talking points to allies of the administration on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Rove is said to have named at least six other administration officials who were involved in the effort to discredit Wilson.

Rove, through an aide, declined to comment for this story. The White House also declined comment, referring any further inquiries to the Department of Justice because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

These revelations come on the heels of a Newsday report that Justice Department officials had subpoenaed the phone records of Air Force One for several days in July before the Novak column ran. In addition, according to Newsday, officials subpoenaed records from the same time period of the White House Iraq Group, an internal task force created to strengthen the case for war made to Congress and the American public. In addition to Rove, prominent members of the task force included National Security Council deputy Stephen J. Hadley; I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney; and former Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Nicholas E. Calio.

The leak of Plame's name to Novak last July came at a time when Plame's husband was criticizing the Bush administration for using faulty intelligence to bolster its case to go to war with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Wilson had led an eight-day, CIA-sponsored mission to Niger to investigate allegations that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium to build an atomic weapon. Wilson reported back to the CIA that the allegations were contrived and that documents purportedly revealing the scheme were crude forgeries.

Still, President Bush, in making the case to go to war with Iraq, cited the allegations in his 2003 State of the Union address. Bush has since admitted that using the Niger information was a mistake, and he has appointed a presidential commission to investigate that and other instances of faulty intelligence considered by Congress before it authorized war.

It was last July, when Wilson first made public his criticisms, that Novak wrote his now-infamous newspaper column alleging that Wilson had received his assignment because his wife had recommended him for the position. The claim has since turned out to be untrue. Novak revealed that Plame was a covert CIA operative in the context of incorrectly asserting that she was responsible for her husband's appointment.

According to sources, Rove, in his interview with the FBI, said that he and others on the White House's political staff wanted to contain the political fallout from Wilson's allegations, and that they thought the charge of favoritism was a legitimate issue. Rove added that when he steered others in the direction of the now-disproved charges, he believed them to be true, in part because he regarded Novak as a credible news source.

When the Justice Department investigation began last September, the White House press corps repeatedly questioned White House press secretary Scott McClellan as to whether Rove was the person who leaked Plame's name to Novak. Initially, McClellan said that Rove had denied that he was the leaker.

Then, on September 28, The Washington Post reported:

"Yesterday, a senior administration official said that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife. `Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge,' the senior official said of the alleged leak. A source said reporters quoted a leaker as describing Wilson's wife as `fair game.'"

A subsequent Newsweek story suggested that the Post had been incorrect in some details. According to the magazine's account, the calls to "at least six Washington journalists" took place after Novak's column appeared, rather than before. Furthermore, Newsweek made an assertion (confirmed by Wilson) that MSNBC talk-show host Chris Matthews called Wilson in July, a full week after Novak's column appeared, telling the former ambassador that "Karl Rove … said your wife was fair game."

When grilled on this variation of Rove's involvement, McClellan became evasive. McClellan insisted that the criminal investigation only centered on "whether someone leaked classified information;" questions regarding the "fair game" report were "down the road of rumor and innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations."

McClellan then warned reporters "not to read anything into what I said," refusing to answer questions about whether it was, in one reporter's words, "ethical for a senior administration official to advance a story about an illegal disclosure of a CIA operative, basically giving that story legs."

McClellan then repeatedly refused to exonerate Rove, according to a transcript of his remarks, instead insisting that any White House comments were merely a matter of "setting the record straight" rather than "spreading information to punish someone for speaking out," something the White House "would not condone."

As a result of the Post report, federal investigators are now hunting for not only the identity of the administration official who leaked Plame's name to Novak but also the administration official who told the paper about the telephone calls to the six other reporters. The investigators believe it likely, according to an attorney familiar with some aspects of the criminal investigation, that the source of the Post story may very well know the identity of the person who leaked Plame's name to Novak.

In interviews with potential witnesses, investigators have taken to referring to the story and its mysterious source as "one by two by six," meaning that one official may know the identity of two other administration officials who spoke to the six reporters.

"If they find 'one by two by six,' then just maybe… they have also found their guy," said one attorney familiar with the criminal investigation.

Still, little else is known regarding special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Plame leak. A federal grand jury only recently began hearing evidence in the matter. FBI agents working on the probe have signed unprecedented secrecy agreements as a condition for working for the special counsel, and Fitzgerald has asked government officials and their attorneys appearing before his grand jury to agree not to disclose anything to the press or the public.

Media attention has so far focused largely on four current and former White House aides who have testified: McClellan; Claire Buchan, a deputy press secretary; Adam Levine, a former White House communications aide, and Mary Matalin, a former adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney.

But several sources have said that some news reports were reading too much into the recent grand-jury appearances. One government official familiar with the inquiry suggested that the grand jury was focusing on the "periphery of the action" and working toward "ruling certain people out and certain theories wrong." Reporters, meanwhile, were "maligning people simply because they did not know anything and had nothing to write." Questioning of more than one witness who has appeared before the grand jury, said an attorney familiar with the inquiry, was "truncated ... and over fairly quickly," adding that "they gave every impression they were closing some doors."

Murray S. Waas is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. (Read more at
http://www.waasinfo.com.
) Research assistance for this article was provided by Jeff Dubner.

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