The attorney representing Karl Rove in the federal investigation into the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson has made a desperate attempt to ensure President Bush’s deputy chief of staff does not become the subject of a criminal indictment.
In doing so, Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, has turned the tables on the media, who ultimately fought a losing battle to protect Rove–their source–who revealed to some reporters Plame Wilson’s identity and CIA status.
Now Luskin has fired back, revealing to Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that Viveca Novak–a reporter working for Time magazine who wrote several stories about the Plame case–inadvertently tipped him off last year that her colleague at the magazine would be forced to testify that Rove was his source who told him about Plame Wilson’s CIA status, several people close to the case said this week.
The latest twist in the two-year-old investigation has all the elements of a Hollywood thriller. New details in the case seem to emerge on a daily basis. Selective leaks to a small handful of newspapers and cable news stations are aimed at portraying some of the key Bush administration officials involved in the case in a sympathetic light, while casting Fitzgerald as a partisan prosecutor.
But the fact remains, several sources close to the investigation said, that Rove is in serious legal jeopardy. According to sources, Fitzgerald is expected to decide before the end of the year whether to seek an indictment against Rove for obstruction of justice and making false statements to Justice Department, FBI investigators, and the grand jury on three separate occasions, for failing to disclose a conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper in July 2003 about Plame Wilson.
According to these sources, unless Novak, who testified Thursday under oath in a deposition before Fitzgerald about her conversation with Luskin in 2004, provides evidence that can convince the grand jury that Rove genuinely forgot he spoke with Cooper in July 2003, and that only when Novak “casually” told Luskin a year later that Cooper obtained his information about Plame Wilson directly from Rove did Rove remember, the man known as the “architect” will most likely find himself facing a criminal indictment.
Two Time magazine reporters who have shared bylines with Novak on several Plame Wilson articles published in the magazine and are familiar with her meeting with Luskin in 2004 said she will testify that she simply repeated to Luskin what had long been rumored in Washington, DC, circles for over a year at the time: that Rove was Cooper’s source.
Novak–who bears no relation to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, the journalist who first published Plame Wilson’s name and CIA status in a July 14, 2003, column–met Luskin in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2004, and over drinks, the two discussed Fitzgerald’s investigation into the Plame Wilson leak. Luskin had assured Novak that Rove learned Plame Wilson’s name after it was published in news accounts and that only then did he phone other journalists to draw their attention to it. But Novak, perhaps trying to convince Luskin that she knew more than she really did about her colleague Cooper’s source, made an offhanded, casual comment to Luskin to the effect that the internal buzz at Time contradicted Luskin’s account, in that everyone in the newsroom knew Rove was Cooper’s source and that he would testify to that in an upcoming grand jury appearance, these sources said.
Novak, who has written for Common Cause magazine, and co-authored the book Inside the Wire, about the atrocities at the Guantánamo prison camp, was in no way trying to tip off Luskin, the sources said; rather, she was trying to gauge his reaction to her comments because “she sensed a story,” and thought that maybe Luskin would provide her with a “scoop” by disclosing to her that Rove was in fact Cooper’s source.
Instead, according to Luskin’s account, he contacted Rove and told him about his conversation with Novak, and that led the two of them to begin an exhaustive search through White House phone logs and emails for any evidence that proved that Rove had spoken with Cooper. Luskin said that during this search an email was found that Rove had sent to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley immediately after Rove’s conversation with Cooper, and it was subsequently turned over to Fitzgerald.
“I didn’t take the bait,” Rove wrote in the email to Hadley immediately following his conversation with Cooper on July 11, 2003. “Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he’s got a welfare reform story coming. 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.”
The email to Hadley, Luskin said, helped Rove recall his conversation with Cooper a year earlier, and Rove returned to the grand jury to clarify his previous testimonies in which he did not disclose that he spoke with journalists, the sources said.
But Rove’s account of his conversation with Cooper went nothing like he had described in his email to Hadley, according to an email Cooper sent to his editor following his conversation with Rove.
“It was, KR said, [former Ambassador Joseph] Wilson’s wife, who apparently works at the agency on wmd [weapons of mass destruction] issues who authorized [Wilson’s] trip,” Cooper’s July 11, 2003, email to his editor said. “Wilson’s wife is Plame, then an undercover agent working as an analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations counterproliferation division. (Cooper later included the essence of what Rove told him in an online story.) The email characterizing the conversation continues: “not only the genesis of the trip is flawed an[d] suspect but so is the report. he [Rove] implied strongly there’s still plenty to implicate iraqi interest in acquiring uranium fro[m] Niger .. ”
It is unclear whether Rove was misleading Hadley about his conversation with Cooper, perhaps, because White House officials told its staff not to engage reporters in any questions posed about Wilson’s Niger claims.
But Fitzgerald is said to be suspicious about the chain of events that led up to the discovery of the email. Moreover, he is said to be convinced that Rove had changed his story once it became clear that Cooper would be compelled to testify about the source–Rove–who revealed Plame Wilson’s CIA status to him.
Additionally, Viveca Novak’s forthcoming testimony before the grand jury appears unlikely to be helpful to Rove, and seems more an attempt at a stall tactic, sources inside Fitzgerald’s investigation said.
For one thing, when Luskin and Novak met for drinks in the summer of 2004, there had already been Beltway gossip, and numerous accounts in major newspapers, fingering Rove as the source of the Plame Wilson leak to Cooper and Robert Novak, none of which forced Rove or Luskin to go back and search for evidence to determine if the rumors had merit.
Furthermore, sources close to Fitzgerald’s investigation said, unless Viveca Novak pointedly told Luskin that she knew for a fact that Cooper would testify that Rove was his source, and that she had evidence to back it up, she was simply repeating to Luskin what had already been rumored when the leak first became public, and there is no reason to believe that her statements single-handedly forced Rove and Luskin to go back and check their facts.
The Time colleagues familiar with her meeting with Luskin said Novak had simply been fishing for a story and may have led Luskin to believe she was “in the know” about internal information at Time that Rove was Cooper’s source. She did not provide Luskin with any new information about Cooper’s conversation with Rove that had not already been reported in the media.
Still, Fitzgerald is said to have more evidence proving Rove tried to cover up his role in the leak as early as October 2003, just three months after Plame Wilson’s CIA cover was blown.
Sources familiar with Luskin’s conversations with Fitzgerald said Luskin told Fitzgerald that when Rove was questioned about his role in the leak in October 2003, he did not disclose his communication with Cooper, because Rove was enmeshed with the 2004 Presidential election, traveling around the country, attending fundraisers, meetings, and working more than 15 hours a day on the campaign as well as other pressing White House matters, and just forgot that he spoke with Cooper three months earlier.
But Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who in October was indicted on five counts of making false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in the Plame Wilson leak, had been the subject of dozens of news stories about the possibility that they played a role in the leak, and had faced dozens of questions as early as August 2003–one month after Plame Wilson was outed–about whether they played a part.
Libby and other officials in Cheney’s office were the first to learn about Plame’s role as a CIA operative. They then shared the classified information with Rove and other senior administration officials in the State Department and the National Security Council, who used it to undermine the credibility of Plame Wilson’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war. He had alleged that President Bush misspoke when he said, in his January 2003 State of the Union address, that Iraq had tried to acquire yellow-cake uranium, the key component used to build a nuclear bomb, from Niger.
The uranium claim was the silver bullet in getting Congress to support military action two months later. To date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and the country barely had a functional weapons program, according to a report from the Iraq Survey Group.
Wilson knew Bush’s statement was false, because he had traveled to Niger more than a year earlier to investigate the yellow-cake claims. Rove, Libby, and other administration officials sought to discredit Wilson by claiming that Wilson had said publicly that he was sent to Niger at the request of Cheney’s office. Cheney did, in fact, contact the CIA at first to arrange the mission, but Plame ultimately recommended Wilson. Still, in February 2002, Wilson traveled to Niger and reported back to the CIA that intelligence reports saying Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger were false.
According to a preliminary FBI investigation, White House officials, including Rove and Libby, first learned of Plame’s name and CIA status in June 2003 when questions surrounding Wilson’s Niger trip were first brought to the attention of Cheney’s aides by reporters, according to an Oct 13, 2003, report in the Washington Post.
“One reason investigators are looking back (to June 2003) is that even before Novak’s column appeared, government officials had been trying for more than a month to convince journalists that Wilson’s mission wasn’t as important as it was being portrayed,” the Post reported.
Fitzgerald is said to be particularly interested in the early days of the leak because they prove that, even before being questioned under oath, Rove had given false statements to prosecutors and that it doesn’t appear believable that he could have forgotten about his conversation with Cooper about Plame Wilson so soon after it happened, the sources said.
It was during the weeks following Plame Wilson’s outing that Rove and Libby had personally gone to great lengths to convince White House officials that neither of them had played a part, the sources said.
On October 7, 2003, President Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said during a press conference that the White House had ruled out three administration officials–Rove, Libby and Elliot Abrams, a senior official on the National Security Council–as sources of the leak. This was a day before the FBI questioned the three of them, based on questions McClellan said he asked the men.
A day later, Rove was interviewed under oath by FBI investigators and told them that he spoke to journalists about Plame for the first time after Robert Novak’s column was published. In fact, it has since become public knowledge that Rove spoke with Robert Novak before his column was published and that he was one of Novak’s two sources.
That same day in October 2003, in an unusual move, Bush said he doubted that a Justice Department investigation would ever turn up the source of the leak, suggesting that it was a waste of time for lawmakers to question the administration and for reporters to follow up on the story.
“I mean, this is a town full of people who like to leak information,” Bush told reporters following a meeting with Cabinet members on October 7, 2003. “And I don’t know if we’re going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there’s lots of senior officials. I don’t have any idea.”
Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, responded to the President’s statement in an October 10, 2003, interview with the New York Times.
“If the president says, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to find this person,’ what kind of a statement is that for the president of the United States to make?” Lautenberg asked. “Would he say that about a bank-robbery investigation?”
During this time, the White House was facing a deadline on turning over documents, emails and phone logs to Justice Department officials probing whether or not the leak came from the White House. Rove’s email to Hadley about the conversation he had with Cooper three months earlier didn’t turn up during the search, the reasons for which are still murky. Furthermore, a log of Cooper’s call to Rove wasn’t included in White House phone logs either. Rove’s assistant at the time, Susan Ralston, had said Cooper called the White House switchboard and was transferred to Rove’s office and transferred calls aren’t logged. However, she is said to have “clarified” her testimony earlier this month, saying that Rove told her not to log the call, after Fitzgerald is said to have obtained documentary evidence proving that wasn’t the case with other calls transferred to Rove’s office, sources close to the investigation who are familiar with Ralston’s testimony said.
At the same time, the White House first started to lay the groundwork for a defense, specifically related to the role Rove played in the leak and whether he or anyone else in the administration knew Plame was a covert CIA operative and intentionally blew her cover in order to undercut Wilson’s credibility.
On October 6, 2003, McClellan, in response to questions about whether Rove was Novak’s source, tried to explain the difference between unauthorized disclosure of classified information and “setting the record straight” about Wilson’s public criticism of the administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraq.
“There is a difference between setting the record straight and doing something to punish someone for speaking out,” McClellan said. “There were some statements made (by Wilson) and those statements were not based on facts,” McClellan said. “And we pointed out that it was not the Vice President’s office that sent Mr. Wilson to Niger. (CIA Director George) Tenet made it very clear in his statement that it was people in the counterproliferation area that made that decision on their own initiative.”
The difference, according to McClellan’s explanation, is crucial in that knowingly making an unauthorized leak of classified information is a federal crime. But repeating the leak when it has already been reported may not be considered a serious offense.
JASON LEOPOLD has written about corporate malfeasance for The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Nation, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other national and international publications. He is the author of the explosive memoir, News Junkie, to be released in the spring of 2006 by Process/Feral House Books. Visit Leopold’s website at www.jasonleopold.com for updates.