An Unlikely Story

White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove did not disclose that he had ever discussed CIA officer Valerie Plame with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper during Rove's first interview with the FBI, according to legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

The omission by Rove created doubt for federal investigators, almost from the inception of their criminal probe into who leaked Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak, as to whether Rove was withholding crucial information from them, and perhaps even misleading or lying to them, the sources said.

Also leading to the early skepticism of Rove's accounts was the claim that although he first heard that Plame worked for the CIA from a journalist, he said could not recall the name of the journalist. Later, the sources said, Rove wavered even further, saying he was not sure at all where he first heard the information.

Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, has said that Rove never knew that Plame was a covert officer when he discussed her CIA employment with reporters, and that he only first learned of her clandestine status when he read about it in the newspaper. Luskin did not return a telephone call today seeking comment for this story.

If recently disclosed press accounts of conversations that Rove had with reporters are correct, Novak and Rove first spoke about Plame on July 8, 2003. It was three days later, on July 11, that Rove also spoke about Plame to Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper. Three days after that, on July 14, Novak's column appeared in which he identified Plame as an "agency operative." According to Novak's account, it was he, not Rove, who first broached the issue of Plame's employment with the CIA, and that Rove at most simply said that he, too, had heard much the same information.

Novak's column came during a period of time when senior White House officials were attempting to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was then asserting that the Bush administration had relied on faulty intelligence to bolster its case to go to war with Iraq. Wilson had only recently led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was covertly attempting to buy enriched uranium from the African nation to build a nuclear weapon. Wilson reported back that the claims were most likely the result of a hoax. But President Bush had still cited them during a State of the Union address as evidence that Hussein had an aggressive program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

In the column, Novak called Plame an "agency operative," thus identifying her as a covert CIA agent. But Novak has since claimed that his use of the phrase "agency operative" was a formulation of his own, and that he did not know, or mean to tell his readers, that she had a covert status with the agency.

Rove, too, has told federal investigators he did not know that Plame had a covert status with the CIA when he spoke with Novak, and Cooper, about Plame.

The distinction as to whether Rove specifically knew Plame's status has been central to the investigation led by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald; under the law, a government official can only be prosecuted if he or she knew of a person's covert status and "that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent."

But investigators were also skeptical of Novak's claim that his use of the term "operative" was a journalistic miscue because it appeared to provide legal protection for whoever his source or sources were. And although Novak's and Rove's accounts of their conversations regarding Plame were largely consistent, they appeared to be self-serving.

It has been, in large part, for all of these reasons that Fitzgerald so zealously sought the testimony of reporters Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times, according to sources sympathetic to Fitzgerald. Cooper testified to Fitzgerald's grand jury last week, after earlier having been found in civil contempt for refusing to do so. In contrast, Miller has refused to testify, and is currently serving a sentence in an Alexandria, Virginia, jail.

Finally, also driving Fitzgerald's investigation has been Rove's assertions that he only found out about Plame's status with the CIA from a journalist -- and one whose name he does not recall. But as The New York Times first disclosed on July 16, senior Bush administration officials first learned that Plame worked for the CIA from a classified briefing paper on July 7, 2003, exactly a week before Novak's column naming Plame appeared and at the time that senior Bush administration officials were devising a strategy to discredit Wilson.

The classified memorandum, dated June 10, 2003, was written for Marc Grossman, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and reportedly made claims similar to those made by Wilson: that the Bush administration had relied on faulty intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Hussein to make the case to go to war with Iraq. The report was circulated to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and a slew of other senior administration officials who were then traveling with President Bush to Africa.

Fitzgerald has focused on whether Rove might have learned of Plame's identity from one of the many senior White House officials who read the memo, according to the Times account and attorneys whose clients have testified before the federal grand jury.

Murray Waas is an investigative reporter. He will be reporting further about the Plame grand jury on his blog, Whatever Already. This article originally said the June 10, 2003 State Department memo was written by Marc Grossman; in fact, it was written for Grossman.