Leak inquiry sparks speculation on Rove

Prosecutor interested in Bush aide's discussion with reporter from Time

July 09, 2005|By Richard B. Schmitt | Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Was it Karl Rove, after all?

Or is President Bush's long-time political adviser getting a bum rap, fueled by wishful thinking of administration critics?

Nearly two years to the day after Robert Novak blew the cover of a CIA operative in a newspaper column, the mystery of who might have leaked the identity of Valerie Plame to Novak and other journalists only seems to be deepening.

The latest tantalizing clue involves Rove and a conversation he had with a Time magazine reporter, Matthew Cooper, in the days before the Novak column appeared.

The conversation was revealed last week by Rove's lawyer, who adds that his client didn't identify Plame or do anything wrong. Nobody else knows precisely what the two men discussed back then, but special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is apparently interested in questioning Cooper about the conversation before wrapping up his investigation.

Cooper narrowly avoided jail this week after saying that a source had waived his pledge of confidentiality and that he was now free to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak.

The disclosure of the two men's conversation, combined with Fitzgerald's single-minded interest in Cooper's source, has jump-started speculation about the identity and motives of the most talked-about confidential source around here since Deep Throat.

But unlike the recently revealed Watergate-era source, the Plame case has raised difficult questions for the press, including whether journalists have ethical duties to protect sources whose own possible misbehavior is at issue.

It has also given ammunition to critics who say the press is too liberal. Even as they criticized Fitzgerald for playing hardball with Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to cooperate, media groups attacked him for failing to get to the bottom of possible wrongdoing by a Republican administration.

Indeed, some people close to the case theorize that the identity of Plame was first introduced to administration officials by journalists who might have known of her status and mentioned it in the kind of back-and-forth that is common in reporters' conversations with sources. Repeating such gossip, however unseemly, would probably not be illegal, legal experts say.

Fitzgerald has been investigating since December 2003. The suspicion is that someone in the White House leaked the identity of Plame to the press in retaliation for a newspaper column her husband had written in The New York Times that attacked the Bush administration for intelligence failures. Novak first surfaced her name in a July 14, 2003, column.

Rove's name first emerged as a suspect mainly through the efforts of Plame's husband, former envoy Joseph Wilson, referring to phone calls he had received from journalists saying that Rove was talking about Plame.

Weeks later, responding to a question about the leak inquiry, Wilson allowed as how he thought it might be "fun to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

Later, in a book about the case, Wilson wrote that he had changed his mind, and suspected that vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby might be the true culprit.

From their public statements, the White House, Rove and his attorney have emphatically denied wrongdoing.

Early in the investigation, spokesman Scott McClellan announced that Rove and other top aides were never involved in "the leaking of classified information."

Rove, in a television interview, said of Plame: "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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