WASHINGTON, AP – Senior aide Karl Rove denied to President Bush that he engaged in an effort to disclose the identity of a covert CIA operative to discredit her husband”s criticism of Iraq policy, say people familiar with Rove”s statements in a criminal investigation.
Rove”s brief discussion with Bush has been a mystery for two years because the White House publicly referred to it but refuses to say anything about it.
Beginning two years ago, the White House flatly denied that Rove had been involved in unlawfully leaking the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson.
The White House denials collapsed in July amid the disclosure of Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper”s conversations in July 2003 about Wilson”s wife with Rove and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney”s chief of staff.
Bush asked Rove in the fall of 2003 to assure him he was not involved in an effort to divulge Plame”s identity and punish Wilson, and the longtime confidant assured the president so, people familiar with Rove”s account say.
Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, answered similarly when press secretary Scott McClellan asked him a similar question.
Those with direct knowledge of evidence gathered in the criminal investigation spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity because of grand jury secrecy.
Bush”s discussion with Rove did not get into specifics concerning Rove”s conversations in July 2003 with syndicated columnist Robert Novak and Cooper, who wrote stories identifying Plame, the people familiar with Rove”s account said.
Rove”s meeting with Bush occurred amid a public uproar over the Justice Department launching a criminal investigation of who in the administration leaked Plame”s identity.
At the time, spokesman McClellan was so adamant in his denials that he told reporters the president himself knew that Rove wasn”t involved in the leak.
"How does (Bush) know that?" a reporter asked.
"I”m not going to get into conversations that the president has with advisers or staff," McClellan replied.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is wrapping up an investigation into whether Rove, Libby or other White House aides divulged Plame”s identity in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
The probe also is examining whether aides mishandled classified information, made false statements or obstructed justice.
Rove is slated to testify soon to the grand jury for the fourth time. Prosecutors told him they no longer can assure that he”ll escape indictment.
Robert Luskin, Rove”s attorney, declined to comment Friday on the specifics of the discussion with Bush. But he confirmed that his client maintains — then and now — he did not engage in an effort to disclose Plame”s identity.
"He always truthfully denied that he was ever part of any campaign to punish Joe Wilson by disclosing the identity of his wife," Luskin said.
In addition to Rove”s discussions with reporters, investigators are looking into a delay in learning about Rove”s contact with Cooper and an e-mail between Rove and now-national security adviser Steve Hadley that referred to the conversation.
Cooper”s contact with Rove did not come up in Rove”s first interview or grand jury appearance, but he volunteered the information and provided the e-mail during a second grand jury appearance.
Wilson went public on July 6, 2003, with criticism of administration officials, suggesting they manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein”s weapons programs to justify an invasion of Iraq.
Eight days later, Novak revealed the identity of Wilson”s wife, giving her maiden name, Valerie Plame, which she used as a CIA officer. Novak said his information about Wilson”s wife had come from two senior administration officials.
Novak wrote that Plame suggested the CIA send her husband on a trip to Niger to investigate intelligence that Iraq had a deal to acquire uranium from the African country.
Wilson said he found it highly doubtful that any such transaction had occurred. The trip was the underpinning for Wilson”s subsequent public criticism that the administration had twisted intelligence on Iraq”s nuclear weapons program to exaggerate the threat.