Rove Reportedly Held Phone Talk on C.I.A. Officer

Published: July 15, 2005

WASHINGTON, July 14 - Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, spoke with the columnist Robert D. Novak as he was preparing an article in July 2003 that identified a C.I.A. officer who was undercover, someone who has been officially briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Rove has told investigators that he learned from the columnist the name of the C.I.A. officer, who was referred to by her maiden name, Valerie Plame, and the circumstances in which her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, traveled to Africa to investigate possible uranium sales to Iraq, the person said.

After hearing Mr. Novak's account, the person who has been briefed on the matter said, Mr. Rove told the columnist: "I heard that, too."

The previously undisclosed telephone conversation, which took place on July 8, 2003, was initiated by Mr. Novak, the person who has been briefed on the matter said.

Six days later, Mr. Novak's syndicated column reported that two senior administration officials had told him that Mr. Wilson's "wife had suggested sending him" to Africa. That column was the first instance in which Ms. Wilson was publicly identified as a C.I.A. operative.

The column provoked angry demands for an investigation into who disclosed Ms. Wilson's name to Mr. Novak. The Justice Department appointed Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a top federal prosecutor in Chicago, to lead the inquiry. Mr. Rove said in an interview with CNN last year that he did not know the C.I.A. officer's name and did not leak it.

The person who provided the information about Mr. Rove's conversation with Mr. Novak declined to be identified, citing requests by Mr. Fitzgerald that no one discuss the case. The person discussed the matter in the belief that Mr. Rove was truthful in saying that he had not disclosed Ms. Wilson's identity.

On Oct. 1, 2003, Mr. Novak wrote another column in which he described calling two officials who were his sources for the earlier column. The first source, whose identity has not been revealed, provided the outlines of the story and was described by Mr. Novak as "no partisan gunslinger." Mr. Novak wrote that when he called a second official for confirmation, the source said, "Oh, you know about it."

That second source was Mr. Rove, the person briefed on the matter said. Mr. Rove's account to investigators about what he told Mr. Novak was similar in its message although the White House adviser's recollection of the exact words was slightly different. Asked by investigators how he knew enough to leave Mr. Novak with the impression that his information was accurate, Mr. Rove said he had heard parts of the story from other journalists but had not heard Ms. Wilson's name.

Robert D. Luskin, Mr. Rove's lawyer, said Thursday, "Any pertinent information has been provided to the prosecutor." Mr. Luskin has previously said prosecutors have advised Mr. Rove that he is not a target in the case, which means he is not likely to be charged with a crime.

In a brief conversation on Thursday, Mr. Novak declined to discuss the matter. It is unclear if Mr. Novak has testified to the grand jury, and if he has whether his account is consistent with Mr. Rove's.

The conversation between Mr. Novak and Mr. Rove seemed almost certain to intensify the question about whether one of Mr. Bush's closest political advisers played a role in what appeared to be an effort to undermine Mr. Wilson's credibility after he challenged the veracity of a key point in Mr. Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, saying Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear fuel in Africa.

The conversation with Mr. Novak took place three days before Mr. Rove spoke with Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine reporter, whose e-mail message about their brief talk reignited the issue. In the message, whose contents were reported by Newsweek this week, Mr. Cooper told his bureau chief that Mr. Rove had talked about Ms. Wilson, although not by name.

After saying in 2003 that it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Mr. Rove had any role in the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's name, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, has refused in recent days to discuss any specifics of the case. But he has suggested that President Bush continues to support Mr. Rove. On Thursday Mr. Rove was at Mr. Bush's side on a trip to Indianapolis.

As the political debate about Mr. Rove grows more heated, Mr. Fitzgerald is in what he has said are the final stages of his investigation into whether anyone at the White House violated a criminal statute that under certain circumstances makes it a crime for a government official to disclose the names of covert operatives like Ms. Wilson.

The law requires that the official knowingly identify an officer serving in a covert position. The person who has been briefed on the matter said Mr. Rove neither knew Ms. Wilson's name nor that she was a covert officer.

Mr. Fitzgerald has questioned a number of high-level administration officials. Mr. Rove has testified three times to the grand jury. I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, has also testified. So has former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. The prosecutor also interviewed Mr. Bush, in his White House office, and Mr. Cheney, but they were not under oath.

The disclosure of Mr. Rove's conversation with Mr. Novak raises a question the White House has never addressed: whether Mr. Rove ever discussed that conversation, or his exchange with Mr. Cooper, with the president. Mr. Bush has said several times that he wants all members of the White House staff to cooperate fully with Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation.

In June 2004, at Sea Island, Ga., soon after Mr. Cheney met with investigators in the case, Mr. Bush was asked at a news conference whether "you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found" to have leaked the agent's name.

"Yes," Mr. Bush said. "And that's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts."

Mr. Novak began his conversation with Mr. Rove by asking about the promotion of Frances Fragos Townsend, who had been a close aide to Janet Reno when she was attorney general, to a senior counterterrorism job at the White House, the person who was briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Novak then turned to the subject of Ms. Wilson, identifying her by name, the person said. In an Op-Ed article for The New York Times on July 6, 2003, Mr. Wilson suggested that he had been sent to Niger because of Mr. Cheney's interest in the matter. But Mr. Novak told Mr. Rove he knew that Mr. Wilson had been sent at the urging of Ms. Wilson, the person who had been briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Rove's allies have said that he did not call reporters with information about the case, rebutting the theory that the White House was actively seeking to intimidate or punish Mr. Wilson by harming his wife's career. They have also emphasized that Mr. Rove appeared not to know anything about Ms. Wilson other than that she worked at the C.I.A. and was married to Mr. Wilson.

This is not the first time Mr. Rove has been linked to a leak reported by Mr. Novak. In 1992, Mr. Rove was fired from the Texas campaign to re-elect the first President Bush because of suspicions that he had leaked information to Mr. Novak about shortfalls in the Texas organization's fund-raising. Both Mr. Rove and Mr. Novak have denied that Mr. Rove had been the source.

Mr. Novak's July 14, 2003, column was published against a backdrop in which White House officials were clearly agitated by Mr. Wilson's assertion, in his Op-Ed article, that the administration had "twisted" intelligence about the threat from Iraq.

But the White House was also deeply concerned about Mr. Wilson's suggestion that he had gone to Africa to carry out a mission that originated with Mr. Cheney. At the time, Mr. Cheney's earlier statements about Iraq's banned weapons were coming under fire as it became clearer that the United States would find no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons and that Mr. Hussein's nuclear program was not far advanced.

Mr. Novak wrote that the decision to send Mr. Wilson "was made at a routinely low level" and was based on what later turned out to be fake documents that had come to the United States through Italy.

Many aspects of Mr. Fitzgerald's investigation remain shrouded in secrecy. It is unclear who Mr. Novak's other source might be or how that source learned of Ms. Wilson's role as a C.I.A. official. By itself, the disclosure that Mr. Rove had spoken to a second journalist about Ms. Wilson may not necessarily have a bearing on his exposure to any criminal charge in the case.

But it seems certain to add substantially to the political maelstrom that has engulfed the White House this week after the reports that Mr. Rove had discussed the matter with Mr. Cooper, the Time reporter.

Mr. Cooper's e-mail message to his editors, in which he described his discussion with Mr. Rove, was among documents that were turned over by Time executives recently to comply with a subpoena from Mr. Fitzgerald. A reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, who never wrote about the Wilson case, refused to cooperate with the investigation and was jailed last week for contempt of court. In addition to focusing new attention on Mr. Rove and whether he can survive the political fallout, it is sure to create new partisan pressure on Mr. Bush. Already, Democrats have been pressing the president either to live up to his promises to rid his administration of anyone found to have leaked the name of a covert operative or to explain why he does not believe Mr. Rove's actions subject him to dismissal.

The Rove-Novak exchange also leaves Mr. McClellan, the White House spokesman, in an increasingly awkward situation. Two years ago he repeatedly assured reporters that neither Mr. Rove nor several other administration officials were responsible for the leak.

The case has also threatened to become a distraction as Mr. Bush struggles to keep his second-term agenda on track and as he prepares for one of the most pivotal battles of his presidency, over the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice.

As Democrats have been demanding that Mr. Rove resign or provide a public explanation, the political machine that Mr. Rove built to bolster Mr. Bush and advance his agenda has cranked up to defend its creator. The Republican National Committee has mounted an aggressive campaign to cast Mr. Rove as blameless and to paint the matter as a partisan dispute driven not by legality, ethics or national security concerns, but by a penchant among Democrats to resort to harsh personal attacks.

But Mr. Bush said Wednesday that he would not prejudge Mr. Rove's role, and Mr. Rove was seated conspicuously just behind the president at a cabinet meeting, an image of business as usual. On Thursday, on the trip with Mr. Bush to Indiana, Mr. Rove grinned his way through a brief encounter with reporters after getting off Air Force One.

Mr. Bush's White House has been characterized by loyalty and long tenures, but no one has been at Mr. Bush's side in his journey through politics longer than Mr. Rove, who has been his strategist, enforcer, policy guru, ambassador to social and religious conservatives and friend since they met in Washington in the early 1970's. People who know Mr. Bush said it was unlikely, if not unthinkable, that he would seek Mr. Rove's departure barring a criminal indictment.