CIA Probe Moves from Leak Source to Perjury, Obstruction

By Douglas Frantz, Sonni Efron and Richard B. Schmitt

Los Angeles Times

July 23, 2005

WASHINGTON — The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation has shifted his focus from whether White House officials violated a law against exposing undercover agents to determining whether evidence exists to bring perjury or obstruction of justice charges, according to people briefed in recent days on the inquiry's status.Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, and his team have made no decision on whether to seek indictments, and there could be benign explanations for differences that have arisen in witnesses' statements to federal agents and a grand jury about how the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who had worked undercover, was leaked to the media two years ago.

The investigation focused initially on whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, in a campaign to discredit Wilson after he wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times criticizing the Bush administration's grounds for going to war in Iraq.

According to lawyers familiar with the case, investigators are comparing statements to federal authorities by two top White House aides, Karl Rove and I. Lewis Libby, with testimony from reporters who have acknowledged talking to the officials.

The sources also said prosecutors are comparing the various statements to the FBI and the grand jury by Rove, who is a White House deputy chief of staff and President Bush's chief political strategist. Rove in his first interview with the FBI did not mention a conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, according to lawyers involved in the case. The White House aide has been interviewed twice by the FBI and made three appearances before the grand jury, they said.While no one has suggested that the investigation into who leaked Plame's name has been shelved, the intensity of the inquiry into possible perjury charges has increased, according to one lawyer familiar with events, , who spoke on condition that he not be identified because he did not want to anger Fitzgerald. .

Rove was told by prosecutors in October that he was not a target of the investigation, according to his lawyer, Robert Luskin. Rove, through his lawyer, has denied that he was the source of Plame's name. "I am quite sure that if his status has changed, I would be informed about it," Luskin said in an interview Friday. "I am not aware of anything that has come to light that would change the facts in front of the prosecutor that would change that assurance."

"He has, from the beginning, been candid forthcoming and accurate," Luskin said of Rove. "There has never been any moment when the government, prosecutors or investigators have suggested that they thought he was being anything but truthful or cooperative."

The investigation's change in emphasis comes amid indications that Fitzgerald's inquiry has gone well beyond scrutinizing the actions of top White House officials, such as Rove and Libby, who is chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, to searching for the potential source of the leak in other parts of the White House and other executive branch agencies.

A former senior State Department official acknowledged that he testified before the grand jury in Washington, D.C., and a congressional source confirmed that Robert Joseph, who was a senior expert on weapons of mass destruction on the White House National Security Council, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he had been questioned by the special prosecutor. Karen Hughes, a former top aide to President Bush, also told the committee that she had been questioned, the source said.

In addition, a senior U.S. official said that several State Department officials, including then Secretary of State Colin Powell, were questioned several months ago about the creation and distribution of a classified memo that mentioned Plame. Prosecutors are interested in the memo, because it might have been a vehicle for spreading Plame's name.

Disclosing the name of a CIA undercover agent is a crime in some circumstances, but legal experts have said that the specific elements of the law make it difficult to prove a violation. Prosecutors could have an easier time winning a conviction through a separate law that makes it a crime for officials with security clearances to disseminate information. Under this statute, it could be a crime to confirm that Plame was a CIA agent if she was operating undercover.

Plame first was identified as a CIA operative by Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist, in July 14, 2003 article, eight days after Wilson's op-ed piece challenged administration claims that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium for its nuclear program from the African nation of Niger. An official close to the investigation said Fitzgerald is concentrating on what happened in the White House and other parts of the administration in those eight days.

The CIA requested the inquiry, which began in September 2003. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed a special prosecutor in December of that year. Fitzgerald is working with FBI agents and a team of attorneys from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., as well as four prosecutors from his office in Chicago.

Fitzgerald was granted wide-ranging latitude to conduct his work. The investigation has led to the jailing of Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, who refused to reveal the sources for an article that she never wrote and was found in civil contempt. Other reporters have testified before the grand jury about conversations with sources after receiving waivers of confidentiality from their sources.

Fitzgerald asked witnesses not to discuss their grand jury testimony in public, but the law does not prohibit witnesses from speaking publicly.

Rove and Libby spoke with reporters during the crucial eight-day period when the administration was mustering its efforts to undermine Wilson's credibility, in part by suggesting that his wife had suggested him for the fact-finding mission to Niger in early 2002. His assignment was to try to determine the authenticity of claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African country for its nuclear program, but Wilson later wrote in the op-ed piece that the intelligence had been twisted and the claims were false.

According to Luskin, Rove has said that he first learned Plame's name from Novak. Novak has refused to discuss his testimony, but investigators are believed to be focusing on possible variations with Novak's account.

Writing in Time magazine, Cooper said that he had telephoned Rove to ask about Wilson's column, and that Rove had disclosed that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. But Cooper said he did not learn her name until he read it in Novak's column several days later, or that he might have learned it from a computer search.

But Rove, according to lawyers involved in the case, told the grand jury that Cooper had telephoned him about a welfare issue and that Wilson came up later.Libby, according to a person familiar with events, told investigators that he learned Plame's name from a reporter, apparently Tim Russert of NBC TV.

But Russert, who last summer spoke with Fitzgerald after Libby released him from a pledge of confidentiality, said that he did not give Plame's name to Libby, according to a statement issued by NBC at the time.

Cooper wrote in Time that he had asked Libby in a conversation if the Cheney aide had heard anything about Wilson's wife dispatching Wilson to Niger and that Libby replied, " `Yeah, I've heard that too,' or words to that effect." Cooper said neither Rove nor Libby used Plame's name.Fitzgerald's term as special prosecutor expires in October, too, but it could be renewed if the investigation is unfinished.