WASHINGTON – In July 2003, Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper called Karl Rove to find out why the Bush administration seemingly wanted to disparage Amb. Joe Wilson (search) after it had already admitted President Bush shouldn't have publicly used British intelligence on Iraq's weapons pursuits that Wilson had criticized the president for citing.
In his first conversation with the president's senior adviser as the new White House correspondent for Time, Cooper started with a clipped statement: "I am writing about Wilson," to which Rove replied: "Don't get too far out on Wilson."
As he reported in his first-person account published in this week's edition of Time, that was the start of a long and winding road that Cooper could not have foreseen.
In the story that appears in the July 25 edition of the magazine, Cooper describes his testimony to a grand jury investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who convened the grand jury, is tasked with finding out who leaked Plame's name and whether the leak rises to the level of a crime -- did the leaker know Plame was covert and deliberately reveal her identity anyway? Another question since raised has been whether Plame was, in fact, covert under the prosecutable definition found in the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
That act defines a covert agent as: "an officer or employee who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States."
According to a book published by Wilson, his wife returned to Washington in 1997, six years before her identity was discussed between Rove and Cooper; however, Wilson, who appeared on a network news show Sunday morning, said the CIA had decided she was still undercover.
"I will just tell you that she was covered according to the CIA, and the CIA made the referral" to the Justice Department, he told CBS' "Face the Nation."
After his television appearance, Wilson told reporters that "whether it is a crime or not ... it is certainly an abuse of power" to leak his wife's identity.
"I said all along that everybody involved in leaking the identity of a covert operative should be removed from their position of responsibility. ... I think Mr. Fitzgerald will determine, if the minute you mention the name of the CIA operative, somebody who is covered by the CIA, then in what is a transparent attempt to run a smear campaign out of the West Wing of the White House, I think it is an outrageous abuse of power," Wilson said.
In 2002, Wilson was sent by the CIA to find out if Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium, used for making nuclear weapons. His mission apparently was to confirm or refute the allegation claimed by British intelligence. Wilson said he could not verify the intelligence, and in a New York Times piece in July 2003 criticized Bush for going ahead and using the British intelligence in his January 2003 State of the Union address.
After hearing insider chatter criticizing Wilson, Cooper said he called Rove, who apparently explained to Cooper that Wilson's mission had not been requested by then-CIA Director George Tenet or Vice President Dick Cheney. Cooper then sought confirmation for that.
"Indeed, the next day the vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, told me Cheney had not been responsible for Wilson's mission," Cooper wrote, adding later that in August 2004, he told the grand jury that he asked Libby on background whether he had heard anything about Wilson's wife's sending her husband to Niger.
"Libby replied, 'Yeah, I've heard that, too, or words to that effect," Cooper wrote, adding that Libby did not reveal her name or where he had heard about Plame.
According to Cooper, Rove was the first to tell him that Wilson's wife worked at the "agency," conceivably the CIA; that her specialty was "WMD," or weapons of mass destruction; and that she was responsible for sending Wilson to Niger. Cooper said Rove never mentioned her by name and Cooper didn't learn it until it showed up the following week in a column by Robert Novak.
"The notes, and my subsequent e-mails, go on to indicate that Rove told me material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson's mission and his findings," Cooper wrote in Time.
"So did Rove leak Plame's name to me or tell me she was covert? No. Was it through my conversation with Rove that I learned for the first time that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and may have been responsible for sending him? Yes. Did Rove say that she worked at the 'agency' on 'WMD'? Yes. When he said things would be declassified soon, was that itself impermissible? I don't know. Is any of this a crime? Beats me," Cooper wrote.
As Fitzgerald continues to investigate whether a crime was committed and by whom, Republicans on Sunday kept up their defense of Rove and the Bush White House.
"Karl Rove and others at the White House are cooperating fully with this investigation. The attempt by Democrats to rush to judgment and smear Rove is outrageous," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.
Mehlman added during a Sunday morning network news show that the deputy White House chief of staff first heard about Wilson's wife from a reporter; therefore, Rove was not knowingly giving up classified information but merely repeating what he heard.
But John Podesta, former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, said the White House's assurance in 2003 that Rove was not involved in the leak "was a lie." Rove's credibility "is in shreds," said Podesta, who appeared with Mehlmen.
On Sunday, Cooper also said there may have been other sources for his information. He declined to elaborate.
Federal prosecutors are reportedly looking into a State Department memo that mentions Valerie Plame's name -- as Valerie Wilson -- and discusses Joe Wilson's Africa trip. The New York Times reports Fitzgerald's grand jury is reviewing the circulation of that memo, which at one point was given to former Secretary of State Colin Powell but may also have been handed over to the White House. The memo was said to be circulating just days before Plame's name was revealed in the Novak column.
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.