Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Exclusive: Novak co-operated with prosecutors (Murray Waas)

THE PUBLIC LIBRARY, Washington D.C.-- Columnist Robert Novak provided detailed accounts to federal prosecutors of his conversations with Bush administration officials who were sources for his controversial July 11, 2003 column identifying Valerie Plame as a clandestine CIA officer, according to attorneys familiar with the matter.

Novak's attorney, James Hamilton, declined to comment earlier this morning. An assistant for Novak told me: "Mr. Novak, per his lawyer's instruction, does not comment on any aspect of that case." Kim Nerheim, a spokesperson for Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the leak of Plame's name said: "We do not confirm or deny any anything regarding an ongoing investigation."

Novak had claimed to the investigators that the Bush administration officials with whom he spoke did not identify Plame as a covert operative, and that use of the word "operative" was his formulation and not theirs, according to those familiar with Novak's accounts to the investigators.

White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and at least two other Bush administration officials have told federal investigators that they had spoken to reporters about Plame, but that they did not know at the time that she was a covert operative with the CIA, the same sources told me.

And, as has now been widely reported, an email turned over last week by Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper to investigators shows that Cooper spoke to Rove just prior to Novak's column. The notes indicate that Rove told him that Plame worked for the CIA, and that Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, obtained an assignment from the CIA, on her recommendation, to go to the African nation of Niger to investigate allegations that the then-Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein was attempting to covertly purchase uranium to build a nuclear weapon.

When Wilson made known that the Niger allegations were untrue, but were still cited by President Bush to make the case to go to war with Iraq, Rove and other administration officials mounted a campaign to discredit Wilson by claiming that he obtained the assignment only because of his wife.

Robert D. Luskin, an attorney for Rove, has previously told me and others that Rove had never told Cooper, Novak, or others that Plame was a clandestine operative for the CIA. He also has said that the special prosecutor investigating the Plame matter, Patrick Fitzgerald, has repeatedly assured him that Rove is not a target of the federal criminal probe, although a spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to verify that claim.

Reached last night at home, Luskin said he would neither confirm or deny that his client, Rove, ever spoke to Novak about Plame: "That particular question is not something I want to address at this point," he said.

Federal investigators have been skeptical of Novak's assertions that he referred to Plame as a CIA "operative" due to his own error, instead of having been explicitly told that was the case by his sources, according to attorneys familiar with the criminal probe.

That skepticism has been one of several reasons that the special prosecutor has pressed so hard for the testimony of Time magazine's Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

In the email that Cooper turned over to federal investigators, Rove was quoted as saying that Plame worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction issues, but it was not dispositive as to whether she was a covert officer or an analyst. That is why the testimony of Cooper and the information already provided by Novak has been central to the criminal investigation. For a violation of law to be prosecutable, the information provided to Novak and other journalists must have been provided with the express intent of exposing a clandestine officer.

Cooper is scheduled to soon testify before the federal grand jury investigating the matter, perhaps even as early as tomorrow morning, sources said.

Also of interest to investigators have been a series of telephone contacts between Novak and Rove, and other White House officials, in the days just after press reports first disclosed the existence of a federal criminal investigation as to who leaked Plame's identity. Investigators have been concerned that Novak and his sources might have conceived or co-ordinated a cover story to disguise the nature of their conversations. That concern was a reason-- although only one of many-- that led prosecutors to press for the testimony of Cooper and Miller, sources said.

Lending credence to those suspicions was that a U.S. government official questioned by investigators said Novak specifically asked him whether Plame had some covert status with the CIA. The official told investigators that Novak appeared uncertain whether she was undercover or not. That account, on one hand, might lend credence to the claims by Rove and other Bush administration officials that they did not know Plame was a covert CIA officer. Conversely, however, the fact that Novak asked the question in the first place appeared to indicate that he might have indeed been told Plame was a covert operative, and was seeking confirmation of that fact.

Whatever the outcome of the criminal case, the political fallout to the Bush administration continues. On Sept. 16, 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, characterized as "totally ridiculous" allegations that Rove had discussed Plame with reporters. On Sept. 29 of the same year, McClellan said: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

In the last few days, many Democrats were calling on the President to make good on his word. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who only last year was his party's nominee for President, said that Rove "has to go." The White House has declined to comment for the second day in a row regarding Rove's conversations with reporters, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Note to my several readers: I recently moved to a new home, and the Comcast guy can only get out on Wednesday to give me Internet access again. So I have blogged this post from the public library! Also special thanks to Sonya Bernhardt, the publisher of the Georgetowner newspaper, for later lending me not only her laptop-- but office as well-- to complete this posting. Note to my several friends: I might be borrowing your laptops for a few minutes between now and then. Unlike major media corporations with their tremendous resources and budgets, I have no laptop of my own. Indeed, unlike most bloggers with their tremendous resources, I have no laptop of my own. Indeed, unlike, well-- most 18 and 19 year old college students today, I don't have a laptop! (All that I actually have are my old school reporting skills and the public library!... and maybe a few good sources here and there. Apparently, those count for something.)

Because I cannot report that much about this during the next couple of days, I recommend that my many readers turn to Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing blog at the Washington Post. His analysis yesterday on recent developments is the most thorough on the Internet.

First update: I do agree with many readers that it is quite lame that I have no laptop, and I pledge to get one very soon (when my readers start paying me, that is.) I will update this post in more substantive ways when I have Internet access again!

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