July 22, 2005

For Two Aides in Leak Case, 2nd Issue Rises

By DAVID JOHNSTON

This article was reported by David Johnston, Douglas Jehl and Richard W. Stevenson and was written by Mr. Johnston.

New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 21 - At the same time in July 2003 that a C.I.A. operative's identity was exposed, two key White House officials who talked to journalists about the officer were also working closely together on a related underlying issue: whether President Bush was correct in suggesting earlier that year that Iraq had been trying to acquire nuclear materials from Africa.

The two issues had become inextricably linked because Joseph C. Wilson IV, the husband of the unmasked C.I.A. officer, had questioned Mr. Bush's assertion, prompting a damage-control effort by the White House that included challenging Mr. Wilson's standing and his credentials. A federal grand jury investigation is under way by a special counsel to determine whether someone illegally leaked the officer's identity and possibly into whether perjury or obstruction of justice occurred during the inquiry.

People who have been briefed on the case said the White House officials, Karl Rove and I. Lewis Libby, were helping prepare what became the administration's primary response to criticism that a flawed phrase about the nuclear materials in Africa had been in Mr. Bush's State of the Union address six months earlier.

They had exchanged e-mail correspondence and drafts of a proposed statement by George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, to explain how the disputed wording had gotten into the address. Mr. Rove, the president's political strategist, and Mr. Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, coordinated their efforts with Stephen J. Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, who was in turn consulting with Mr. Tenet.

At the same time, they were grappling with the fallout from an Op-Ed article on July 6, 2003, in The New York Times by Mr. Wilson, a former diplomat, in which he criticized the way the administration had used intelligence to support the claim in Mr. Bush's speech.

The work done by Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby on the Tenet statement during this intense period has not been previously disclosed. People who have been briefed on the case discussed this critical time period and the events surrounding it to demonstrate that Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby were not involved in an orchestrated scheme to discredit Mr. Wilson or disclose the undercover status of his wife, Valerie Wilson, but were intent on clarifying the use of intelligence in the president's address. Those people who have been briefed requested anonymity because prosecutors have asked them not to discuss matters under investigation.

The special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has been examining this period of time to determine whether the officials' work on the Tenet statement led in some way to the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity to Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist, according to the people who have been briefed.

It is not clear what information Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby might have collected about Ms. Wilson as they worked on the Tenet statement. Mr. Rove has said he learned her name from Mr. Novak. Mr. Libby has declined to discuss the matter.

The effort was striking because to an unusual degree, the circle of officials involved included those from the White House's political and national security operations, which are often separately run. Both arms were drawn into the effort to defend the administration during the period.

In another indication of how wide a net investigators have cast in the case, Karen Hughes, a former top communications aide to Mr. Bush, and Robert Joseph, who was then the National Security Council's expert on weapons proliferation, have both told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that they were interviewed by the special prosecutor.

Ms. Hughes is to have her confirmation hearing on Friday on her nomination to lead the State Department's public diplomacy operation. Mr. Joseph was recently confirmed as under secretary of state for arms control and international security. As part of their confirmation proceedings, both had to fill out questionnaires listing any legal matters they had become involved in.

Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby did not meet face to face while hammering out the critical points that were desired for the Tenet statement, the people briefed on the case said.

In its final version, the Tenet statement, through its language and tone, supported the contention that senior White House officials were focused on addressing the substance of Mr. Wilson's claims. It did not mention Mr. Wilson or his wife, and Mr. Libby made it clear that Vice President Cheney did not send Mr. Wilson to Africa, a notion some said Mr. Wilson had suggested in his article. The defenders of Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby contend that the statement underscores that they were not trying to punish Mr. Wilson.

A former government official, though, added another element to how the statement was prepared, saying that no one directed Mr. Tenet to issue it and that Mr. Tenet himself felt it was needed. The statement said that the "C.I.A.'s counterproliferation experts, on their own initiative, asked an individual with ties to the region to make a visit to see what he could learn."

In Mr. Wilson's article, he recounted a mission he undertook to Niger in 2002 seeking information about a purported effort by President Saddam Hussein of Iraq to acquire uranium there, his conclusion that the effort had not occurred and the filing of his report.

In his State of the Union address in January 2003, Mr. Bush cited reports that Iraq had sought to acquire a form of uranium in Africa as evidence of Mr. Hussein's intentions to gain weapons that he might provide to terrorists, use to threaten the United States or employ against other nations in the Middle East.

Lawyers with clients in the case said Mr. Fitzgerald and his investigators have shown interest in a classified State Department memo that was provided to Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, as he left for Africa on Air Force One with Mr. Bush and his top aides on July 7, 2003, a day after Mr. Wilson made his accusations public.

The memorandum identified Ms. Wilson by name and described her as having a role in her husband's selection for the mission to Niger. A government official said the paragraph in the memorandum identifying Ms. Wilson was preceded by the letter S in brackets, a designation meaning that contents of the paragraph were classified secret. The designation was first reported on Thursday by The Washington Post.

The investigators have been trying to determine who else within the administration might have seen the memo or learned of its contents.

Among those asked if he had seen the memo was Ari Fleischer, then the White House press secretary, who was on Air Force One with Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell during the Africa trip. Mr. Fleischer told the grand jury that he never saw the document, a person familiar with the testimony said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the prosecutor's admonitions about not disclosing what is said to the grand jury.

Mr. Fleischer's role has been scrutinized by investigators, in part because his telephone log showed a call on the day after Mr. Wilson's article appeared from Mr. Novak, the columnist who, on July 14, 2003, was the first to report Ms. Wilson's identity.

In his column, Mr. Novak referred to her by her maiden name, Valerie Plame, which she had used when first employed by the C.I.A. Mr. Fleischer has told the grand jury that he did not return Mr. Novak's call, a person familiar with the testimony said.

Mr. Rove has also told the grand jury that he never saw the memorandum, a person briefed on the case said. Democrats who have been eager to focus attention on the case have urged reporters to look into the role of several other administration officials, including John R. Bolton, who was then under secretary of state for arms control and international security and has since been nominated by Mr. Bush to be ambassador to the United Nations.

In his disclosure form for his confirmation hearings, Mr. Bolton made no mention of being interviewed in the case, a government official said. In the week after Mr. Wilson's article appeared, Mr. Bolton attended a conference in Australia.

In addition to ferreting out the original leak, the grand jury is examining the truthfulness of its witnesses, comparing each account with previous testimony. One apparent area of interest is the conflicting accounts given by Mr. Rove and Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine correspondent who has said he spoke to Mr. Rove about Ms. Wilson, about why they spoke on July 11, 2003.

Mr. Rove, said a source familiar with his testimony, told prosecutors that the conversation began under the pretext of discussing welfare reform.

But Mr. Cooper said he had no record or memory of actually talking to Mr. Rove about welfare reform, instead only discussing the Wilson case in their brief chat. The grand jury focused on that apparent discrepancy, Mr. Cooper wrote in an account in Time this week.

Anne E. Kornblut contributed reporting for this arti