At White House, a Day of Silence on Rove's Role in C.I.A. Leak

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON

New York Times

July 12, 2005

WASHINGTON, July 11 - Nearly two years after stating that any administration official found to have been involved in leaking the name of an undercover C.I.A. officer would be fired, and assuring that Karl Rove and other senior aides to President Bush had nothing to do with the disclosure, the White House on Monday refused to answer any questions about new evidence of Mr. Rove's role in the matter.

With the White House silent, Democrats rushed in, demanding that the administration provide a full account of any involvement by Mr. Rove, one of the president's closest advisers, turning up the political heat in the case and leaving some Republicans worried about the possible effects on Mr. Bush's second-term agenda.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, cited Mr. Bush's statements about firing anyone involved in the leak and said, "I trust they will follow through on this pledge."

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said Mr. Rove, given his stature and the principles involved in the case, could not hide behind legal advice not to comment.

"The lesson of history for George Bush and Karl Rove is that the best way to help themselves is to bring out all the facts, on their own, quickly," Mr. Schumer said, citing the second-term scandals that have beset previous administrations.

In two contentious news briefings, the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, would not directly address any of a barrage of questions about Mr. Rove's involvement, a day after new evidence suggested that Mr. Rove had discussed the C.I.A. officer with a reporter from Time magazine in July 2003 without identifying her by name.

Under often hostile questioning, Mr. McClellan repeatedly declined to say whether he stood behind his previous statements that Mr. Rove had played no role in the matter, saying he could not comment while a criminal investigation was under way. He brushed aside questions about whether the president would follow through on his pledge, repeated just over a year ago, to fire anyone in his administration found to have played a role in disclosing the officer's identity. And he declined to say when Mr. Bush learned that Mr. Rove had mentioned the C.I.A. officer in his conversation with the Time reporter.

When one reporter, David Gregory of NBC News, said that it was "ridiculous" for the White House to dodge all questions about the issue and pointed out that Mr. McClellan had addressed the same issues in detail in the past, Mr. McClellan replied, "I'm well aware, like you, of what was previously said, and I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time."

A moment later, Terry Moran of ABC News prefaced his question by saying Mr. McClellan was "in a bad spot here" because he had spoken from the same podium in the White House briefing room on Oct. 10, 2003, after the Justice Department began its formal investigation into the leak, and specifically said that neither Mr. Rove nor two other officials - Elliot Abrams, a national security aide, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff - were involved.

Mr. McClellan disputed the characterization of the question but did not directly address why the White House had appeared now to have adopted a new policy of not commenting on the matter.

Mr. Rove made no public comment. A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House now says its official position is not to comment on the case while it is under investigation by a federal special prosecutor, said Mr. Rove had gone about his business as usual on Monday. The official said Mr. Rove had held his regular meetings with Mr. Bush and other top White House aides, and was deeply involved in preparations for the Supreme Court nomination and efforts to push several major pieces of legislation through Congress this month.

The criminal investigation into how the C.I.A. officer's name came to appear in a syndicated newspaper column two years ago continued largely out of public view. But the disclosure in recent days of evidence that Mr. Rove had discussed the C.I.A. officer's identity, though in a vague way, thrust the case squarely back into the political arena, reflecting Mr. Rove's standing as among the most powerful men in Washington and his place in the innermost councils of the White House.

Because of the powerful role Mr. Rove plays in shaping policy and deploying Mr. Bush's political support and machinery throughout the party, few Republicans were willing to discuss his situation on the record. Asked for comment on Monday, several Republican senators said they did not know enough or did not want to venture an opinion.

But in private, several prominent Republicans said they were concerned about the possible effects on Mr. Bush and his agenda, in part because Mr. Rove's stature makes him such a tempting target for Democrats.

"Knowing Rove, he's still having eight different policy meetings and sticking to his game plan," said one veteran Republican strategist in Washington who often works with the White House. "But this issue now is looming, and as they peel away another layer of the onion, there's a lot of consternation. Rove needs to be on his A game now, not huddled with lawyers and press people."

A senior Congressional Republican aide said most members of Congress were still waiting to learn more about Mr. Rove's involvement and to assess whether more disclosures about his role were likely.

"The only fear here is where does this go," the aide said. "We can't know."

Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's senior adviser, deputy chief of staff and political strategist, was plunged back into the center of the matter on Sunday, when Newsweek reported that an e-mail message written by a Time magazine reporter had recounted a conversation with Mr. Rove in July 2003 in which Mr. Rove had discussed the C.I.A. operative at the heart of the case without naming her.

Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, has said the e-mail message showed that Mr. Rove was not taking part in any organized effort to disclose the identity of the operative, Valerie Plame Wilson, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV. Mr. Wilson is a former diplomat who traveled to Africa on behalf of the C.I.A. before the Iraq war to investigate reports concerning Saddam Hussein's efforts to acquire nuclear material.

In July 2003, several months after Mr. Hussein was toppled, Mr. Wilson publicly disputed one of the administration's claims about the Iraqi nuclear program. He has suggested that the White House sought retribution by publicly identifying his wife, first in a syndicated column written by Robert Novak, effectively ending her career as a covert operative.

Mr. Wilson has at times voiced suspicions that Mr. Rove played a role in identifying his wife to reporters, saying in August 2003 that he was interested in finding out "whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

In September 2003, Mr. McClellan said flatly that Mr. Rove had not been involved in disclosing Ms. Plame's name. Asked about the issue on Sept. 29, 2003, Mr. McClellan said he had "spoken with Karl Rove," and that it was "simply not true" that Mr. Rove had a role in the disclosure of her identity. Two weeks earlier, he had called suggestions that Mr. Rove had been involved "totally ridiculous." On Oct. 10, 2003, after the Justice Department opened its formal investigation, Mr. McClellan told reporters that Mr. Rove, Mr. Abrams and Mr. Libby had nothing to do with the leak.

Mr. McClellan and Mr. Bush have both made clear that leaking Ms. Plame's identity would be considered a firing offense by the White House. Mr. Bush was asked about that position most recently a little over a year ago, when he was asked whether he stood by his pledge to fire anyone found to have leaked the officer's name. "Yes," he replied, on June 10, 2004.

Under some circumstances, it can be against the law to disclose the identity of a covert C.I.A. operative. Mr. Luskin has said he has been told by the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, that Mr. Rove is not a target of the investigation.

Democrats, as the minority party in both the House and the Senate, have no ability to push forward with a formal Congressional investigation. But Mr. Rove is such a high-profile political target that his role is sure to draw intense scrutiny from both Democrats in Congress and liberal interest groups.

Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Government Reform committee, called for hearings on what he termed "this disgraceful incident," saying that if it had happened in the Clinton administration the Republican-controlled House would certainly have summoned the deputy White House chief of staff to testify.

Mr. Rove has been caught up in the inquiry almost from the start. He was first interviewed by F.B.I. agents in 2003 during the preliminary investigation of the case. Later, he was interviewed by prosecutors and testified three times to the grand jury.

The prosecutor is believed to have already extensively questioned Mr. Rove at the grand jury about his conversations with the Time reporter, Matthew Cooper, whose call to Mr. Rove on July 11, 2003, was noted in a White House log that was turned over to the prosecutor. Time turned Mr. Cooper's notes and e-mails over to the prosecutor last month under court order.

The 1982 law that makes it a crime to disclose the identities of covert agents is not easy to break. It has apparently been the basis of a single prosecution, against Sharon M. Scranage, a C.I.A. clerk in Ghana who pleaded guilty in 1985 to identifying two C.I.A. agents to a boyfriend there.

A prosecutor seeking to establish a violation of the law has to establish an intentional disclosure by someone with authorized access to classified information. That person must know that the disclosure identifies a covert agent "and that the United States was taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." A covert agent is defined as someone whose identity is classified information and who has served outside the United States within the last five years.

"We made it exceedingly difficult to violate," Victoria Toensing, who was chief counsel to the Senate intelligence committee when the law was enacted, said of the law.

The e-mail message from Mr. Cooper to his bureau chief describing a brief conversation with Mr. Rove, first reported in Newsweek, does not by itself establish that Mr. Rove knew Ms. Wilson's covert status or that the government was taking measures to protect her.

Based on the e-mail message, Mr. Rove's disclosures are not criminal, said Bruce S. Sanford, a Washington lawyer who helped write the law and submitted a brief on behalf of several news organizations concerning it to the appeals court hearing the case of Mr. Cooper and Judith Miller, an investigative reporter for The New York Times.

"It is clear that Karl Rove's conversation with Matt Cooper does not fall into that category" of criminal conduct, Mr. Sanford said. "That's not 'knowing.' It doesn't even come close."

There has been some dispute, moreover, about just how secret a secret agent Ms. Wilson was.

"She had a desk job in Langley," said Ms. Toensing, who also signed the supporting brief in the appeals court, referring to the C.I.A.'s headquarters. "When you want someone in deep cover, they don't go back and forth to Langley."

Carl Hulse and David Johnston contributed reporting from Washington for this article, and Adam Liptak from New York.