WASHINGTON – Prosecutors investigating a CIA officer's blown cover gathered e-mail evidence that a top White House intelligence official knew Bush confidant Karl Rove (search) had spoken to a reporter just days before the journalist identified the covert operative.
Rove told then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley (search) in the July 11, 2003, e-mail that he had spoken with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper (search) and tried to caution him away from some allegations that CIA operative Valerie Plame's husband was making about faulty Iraq intelligence.
"I didn't take the bait," Rove wrote in the message, disclosed to The Associated Press. In the memo, Rove recounted how Cooper tried to question him about whether President Bush had been hurt by the new allegations Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had been making.
The White House turned the e-mail over to prosecutors, and Rove told a grand jury about it last year during testimony in which he also acknowledged discussing Plame's covert work for the CIA with Cooper and syndicated columnist Robert Novak.
Rove, however, told the grand jury he first learned of Plame's CIA work from journalists, not government sources.
Just days before the e-mail, Plame's husband had written a newspaper opinion piece accusing the Bush administration of twisting prewar Iraq intelligence, including a "highly doubtful" report that Saddam Hussein bought nuclear materials from the African country of Niger.
"Matt Cooper called to give me a heads-up that he's got a welfare reform story coming," Rove wrote Hadley, who has since risen to the top job of national security adviser.
"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, said Friday 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. He said Rove never invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination or Bush's executive privilege guaranteeing confidential advice from aides.
Rove, Bush's closest adviser, told a grand jury the e-mail was consistent with his recollection that his intention in talking with Cooper wasn't to divulge Plame's identity but to caution the reporter 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 Novak was planning an article about Plame and Wilson in his column, the legal sources said.
Rove also knew that then-CIA Director George Tenet was about 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 sources said.
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 House 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 divulged 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 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.