WASHINGTON – After mentioning a CIA operative to a reporter, Bush confidant Karl Rove alerted the president’s No. 2 security adviser about the interview and said he tried to steer the journalist away from allegations the operative’s husband was making about faulty Iraq intelligence.
The July 11, 2003, e-mail between Rove and then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is the first showing an intelligence official knew Rove had talked to Matthew Cooper just days before the Time magazine reporter wrote an article identifying Valerie Plame as a CIA officer.
“I didn’t take the bait,” Rove wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Associated Press, recounting how Cooper tried to question him about whether President Bush had been hurt by the new allegations.
The White House turned the e-mail over to prosecutors, and Rove testified to a grand jury about it last year.
Earlier in the week before the e-mail, Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had written a newspaper opinion piece accusing the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence, including a “highly doubtful” report that Iraq bought nuclear materials from Niger.
“Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he’s got a welfare reform story coming,” Rove wrote in the e-mail to Hadley.
“When he finished his brief heads-up he immediately launched into Niger. Isn’t this damaging? Hasn’t the president been hurt? I didn’t take the bait, but I said if I were him I wouldn’t get Time far out in front on this.”
Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Hadley, now Bush’s national security adviser, said he could not comment due to the continuing criminal investigation. Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, said his client answered all the questions prosecutors asked during three grand jury appearances, never invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or the president’s executive privilege guaranteeing confidential advice from aides.
Rove, Bush’s closest adviser, turned over the e-mail as soon as prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into who leaked Plame’s covert work for the CIA.
He later told a grand jury the e-mail was consistent with his recollection that his intention in talking with Cooper that Friday in July 2003 wasn’t to divulge Plame’s identity but to caution Cooper against certain allegations Plame’s husband was making, according to legal professionals familiar with Rove’s testimony.
They spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the grand jury investigation.
Rove sent the e-mail shortly before leaving the White House early for a family vacation that weekend, already aware that another journalist he had talked with, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, was planning an article about Plame and Wilson.
Rove also knew that then-CIA Director George Tenet planned later that same day to issue a dramatic statement that took responsibility for some bad Iraq intelligence but that also called into question some of Wilson’s assertions, the legal sources said.
The AP reported Thursday that Rove acknowledged to the grand jury that he talked about Plame with both Cooper and Novak before they published their stories but that he originally learned about the operative’s identity from the news media, not government sources.
Republicans cheered the latest revelations Friday, saying they showed Rove wasn’t trying to hurt Plame but instead was trying to informally warn reporters to be cautious about some of Wilson’s claims.
“What it says is, Karl Rove wasn’t the leaker. He was actually the recipient of the information, not the provider,” Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman said on Fox News. “So there are probably a lot of folks in Washington who have prejudged this, who have rushed to judgment, who are trying to smear Karl Rove.”
Democrats, however, said that even if Rove wasn’t the leaker, someone still divulged Plame’s identity and possibly violated the law.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders asked Speaker Dennis Hastert on Friday to let Congress hold hearings into the controversy regardless of the criminal probe now under way.
“In previous Republican Congresses the fact that a criminal investigation was under way did not prevent extensive hearings from being held on other, much less significant matters,” Pelosi wrote.
Federal law prohibits government officials from divulging the identity of an undercover intelligence officer. But in order to bring charges, prosecutors must prove the official knew the officer was covert and nonetheless knowingly outed his or her identity.
Rove’s conversations with Novak and Cooper took place just days after Wilson suggested in his opinion piece in the New York Times that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was used to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Summarizing a trip he made to Africa on behalf of the CIA, Wilson wrote that he’d concluded it was highly doubtful the nation of Niger had sold uranium yellowcake to Iraq. Tenet issued a lengthy statement five days later saying that he never should have allowed Bush to use the Niger information in his State of the Union address but that Wilson’s report did not resolve whether Iraq was seeking uranium from abroad.