Sunday, July 17, 2005

Prosecutors investigating a CIA officer’s blown cover gathered e-mail evidence that a top White House intelligence official knew that President Bush’s confidant, Karl Rove, had spoken to a reporter just days before the journalist identified the covert operative.

Mr. Rove told Stephen J. Hadley, then deputy national security adviser, in the July 11, 2003, e-mail that he had spoken with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and tried to caution him away from some assertions that CIA employee Valerie Plame’s husband was making about faulty Iraq intelligence.

“I didn’t take the bait,” Mr. Rove wrote in the message obtained by the Associated Press. In the memo, Mr. Rove recounted how Mr. Cooper tried to question him about whether President Bush had been hurt by the new accusations that Mrs. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had been making.

The White House turned the e-mail over to prosecutors, and Mr. Rove told a grand jury about it last year during testimony in which he also acknowledged discussing Mrs. Plame’s work for the CIA with Mr. Cooper and syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

Mr. Rove, however, told the grand jury that he first learned of Mrs. Plame’s CIA work from journalists, not government sources.

Just days before the e-mail, Mrs. Plame’s husband had written a newspaper opinion piece accusing the Bush administration of twisting prewar Iraq intelligence, including a “highly doubtful” report that then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein bought nuclear materials from the African country of Niger.

“Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he’s got a welfare-reform story coming,” Mr. Rove wrote Mr. Hadley, who since has risen to the top job of national security adviser.

“When he finished his brief heads-up, he immediately launched into Niger. Isn’t this damaging? Hasn’t the president been hurt? I didn’t take the bait, but I said if I were him, I wouldn’t get Time far out in front on this.”

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Mr. Hadley, said Friday he could not comment, owing to the continuing criminal investigation. Mr. Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, said his client answered all the questions prosecutors asked during three grand jury appearances. He said Mr. Rove never invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or Mr. Bush’s executive privilege guaranteeing confidential advice from aides.

Mr. Rove, the president’s closest adviser, told a grand jury the e-mail was consistent with his recollection that his intention in talking with Mr. Cooper wasn’t to divulge Mrs. Plame’s identity, but to caution the reporter against certain assertions Mr. Wilson was making, said legal professionals familiar with Mr. Rove’s testimony.

They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the grand jury investigation.

Mr. Rove sent the e-mail shortly before he left the White House early for a family vacation that weekend, already aware that Mr. Novak was planning an article about Mrs. Plame and Mr. Wilson in his column, the legal sources said.

Mr. Rove also knew that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet was about to issue a dramatic statement that took responsibility for some bad Iraq intelligence, but that also questioned some of Mr. Wilson’s assertions, the sources said.

Republicans cheered the latest revelations Friday, saying they showed Mr. Rove wasn’t trying to hurt Mrs. Plame, but instead was trying to informally warn reporters to be cautious about some of Mr. Wilson’s claims.

Democrats, however, said that, even if Mr. Rove wasn’t the leaker, someone still divulged Mrs. Plame’s identity and possibly violated the law. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders asked House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert on Friday to let Congress hold hearings into the controversy, regardless of the criminal probe now under way.

Federal law prohibits government officials from divulging the identity of an undercover intelligence officer, but in order to bring charges, prosecutors must prove the official knew the officer was covert and nonetheless knowingly divulged his or her identity.

Mr. Rove’s conversations with Mr. Novak and Mr. Cooper occurred just days after Mr. Wilson suggested in his opinion piece in the New York Times that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear-weapons program was used to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

Summarizing a trip he made to Africa on behalf of the CIA, Mr. Wilson wrote that he had concluded it was highly doubtful the nation of Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq.

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