WASHINGTON – Although Joseph Wilson (search) and many Democrats have spent the last week saying Karl Rove (search) leaked the identity of a CIA operative to journalists, it may have been the other way around, according to sources familiar with grand jury testimony.
Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, testified to a grand jury that he talked with two journalists before they divulged the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame (search), but that he originally learned about her from the news media and not government sources, a person briefed on the testimony told The Associated Press.
The person, who works in the legal profession, told AP that Rove testified last year that he remembered specifically being told by columnist Robert Novak (search) that Plame, who is Wilson's wife, worked for the CIA. Days earlier, Wilson, a former ambassador, had written a harsh critique of the Iraq war that was published in the New York Times
The Times also reported Friday that Rove spoke with Novak as he was preparing his July 2003 article. Novak is the reporter who first outted Plame in print but, he has not appeared to be a focus of the investigation thus far.
The Times reported that someone who has been officially briefed on the matter said Rove also learned from Novak the situation under which Wilson traveled to Africa to investigate possible uranium sales to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Novak told him he planned to report in a weekend column that Plame had worked for the CIA, and the details about the Africa trip, Rove testified.
After hearing Novak's account, the person familiar with the testimony said, Rove told the columnist: "I heard that, too."
Rove testified that by the time Novak called him, he believes he had similar information about Wilson's wife from someone else in the media but he couldn't remember exactly who.
The Novak Conversation
According to the New York Times, Novak started his conversation with Rove by asking about the promotion of Frances Fragos Townsend to a senior counterterrorism job at the White House.
The talk eventually turned to Wilson, who criticizing the Bush administration's use of faulty intelligence to justify the war in Iraq, legal sources said; Novak apparently identified Plame by name.
A few days before these conversations, in an op-ed article for The New York Times on July 6, 2003, Wilson suggested that he had been sent to Niger (search) because of Vice President Dick Cheney's interest in the matter. But Novak told Rove he knew that Wilson had been sent at the urging of his wife, the sources said.
Novak's column was printed six days later, touching off what would turn into a political firestorm that launched a federal criminal investigation that continues today into who leaked Plame's identity.
Three days after the Novak conversation, Rove testified, the chief of staff had a phone conversation with Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper and — in an effort to discredit some of Wilson's allegations — informally told Cooper that he believed Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, though he never used her name, sources told the AP and the Times.
An e-mail Cooper recently provided the grand jury shows Cooper reported to his magazine bosses that Rove had described Wilson's wife in a confidential conversation as someone who "apparently works" at the CIA.
On Oct. 1, 2003, Novak wrote another column in which he described calling two Bush administration officials who were his sources for the earlier column that identified Plame. One source was Rove, the other has not yet been named.
Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, said Thursday his client truthfully testified to the grand jury and expected to be exonerated.
"Karl provided all pertinent information to prosecutors a long time ago," Luskin said. "And prosecutors confirmed when he testified most recently in October 2004 that he is not a target of the investigation."
Republicans argued Friday that the latest information exonerates their man.
"Karl Rove wasn't the leaker, he was actually the recipient of the information," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman told FOX News on Friday morning.
Wilson kept up his criticism of the White House, saying Thursday that Rove's conduct was an "outrageous abuse of power ... certainly worthy of frog-marching out of the White House."
Federal law prohibits government officials from divulging the identity of an undercover intelligence officer. But prosecutors must prove the leaking official knew the officer was covert and knowingly outed his or her identity. One of the questions that still remains is exactly what status Plame had at the time of the leak; many reports say she had a desk job at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., at the time.
Wilson on Thursday acknowledged his wife was no longer in an undercover job at the time Novak's column first identified her.
"My wife was not a clandestine officer the day that Bob Novak blew her identity," he said.
But in an interview Friday, Wilson said his comment was meant to reflect that his wife lost her ability to be a covert agent because of the leak, not that she had stopped working for the CIA beforehand.
Melissa Mahle, a former CIA agent who knows Plame, said her friend's exact status at the time of the outing isn't the issue. She stressed that Plame was an expert in weapons of mass destruction, which is no light intelligence matter.
"Valerie was an undercover officer ... the reality is, Valerie has no cover anymore," said Mahle, the author of "Denial and Deception." "When you're an undercover officer, you nurture that undercover" status and the contacts you make during the job, she added.
"It's not so important what she was doing that moment in time because your career is linked by all of your activities and if you were exposed by beig a CIA officer, bad guys are going to start looking at what you were doing before and backtracking."
On the issue of allegations that Plame was actually the one who sent Wilson to Niger — and not someone within the Bush administration, Mahle said that isn't possible given the rigid chain of command in the CIA.
"You don't send somebody oversees as an officer ... we have a chain of command ... those kind of decisions go up your chain so Valerie wasn't in the position of making that decision," she added.
GOP: Dems Have Nothing Better To Do
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and other leaders asked Friday that Congress hold hearings regardless of the ongoing criminal probe.
"In previous Republican Congresses the fact that a criminal investigation was underway did not prevent extensive hearings from being held on other, much less significant matters," Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert.
On Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada pressed for legislation — which ultimately failed — to strip Rove of his clearance for classified information, which he said Bush should have done already. Instead, Reid said, the Bush administration has attacked its critics: "This is what is known as a cover-up. This is an abuse of power."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Democrats were resorting to "partisan war chants."
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced legislation for an investigation that would compel senior administration officials to turn over records relating to the Plame disclosure.
"It seems to me this all comes down to an issue of White House credibility," Lawrence Haas, former communications director for Al Gore, told FOX News. "Nothing is more important for a White House than credibility ... this administration doesn't necessarily always play it straight ... they have a tendency to skirt the line when it comes to honesty."
Mehlman told FOX News on Friday that what happened on the Senate floor the day before was nothing more than a "partisan charade" full of "smears" on Rove.
Democrats needs to let the independent counsel to his job, Mehlman added. "We need politics to be about solutions, not insults … the angry left should not drive the Democratic Party."
"What the real problem here is, this is a political game to get Karl Rove — a political strategist who has beaten the Democrats time and time again," added Republican strategist Brad Blakeman.
Ron Kaufman, a former White House political director and current GOP strategist, told FOX News on Friday that Democrats are still bitter and sore about losing the past few elections and, during the slow summer months in Washington, the Rove issue is one they're trying to nail the administration with.
"There is no problem here except for a group of Democrats that can't talk about Social Security, can't talk about terrorism … so they're talking about Karl Rove," Kaufman said. "It's time for the Democrats to realize they lost, we won, let's get on with the things Americans care about."
FOXNews.com's Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.