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White House clams up on CIA leak

Karl Rove is President Bush's chief political adviser.


Karl Rove
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
White House

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With a criminal probe heating up into who exposed an undercover CIA agent, the White House spokesman is fending off sharp questions about what role U.S. President George W. Bush's top political adviser may have played in the case.

News reports have implicated White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove -- the architect of Bush's two presidential campaigns -- in the leak, but spokesman Scott McClellan said on Monday the White House does not want to discuss a pending investigation.

"No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States," he said.

"And I think the way to be most helpful is to not get into commenting on it while it is an ongoing investigation."

The White House spokesman faced sharp questions not only about Rove, but also about his own statements in the nearly two-year-old criminal probe.

In 2003, McClellan said it was "totally ridiculous" to suggest that Rove played any role in the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. He also said Bush has insisted that his staffers cooperate with the investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and that anyone responsible would be fired.

"You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved, and now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson's wife," one reporter said. "So don't you owe the American public a fuller explanation?"

"There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time to talk about it," McClellan replied.

Newsweek reported this week that a July 2003 e-mail from Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper states Rove told him about an agent who was the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had just leveled accusations that the Bush administration had overstated a key piece of intelligence in its arguments for war with Iraq.

Cooper's e-mail does not say that Rove explicitly named Plame. But it states that Rove told him Wilson was not authorized by the CIA to investigate whether Iraq had sought uranium from the African country of Niger, as Wilson had stated in a July 2003 piece in The New York Times.

Instead, the e-mail states: "It was Wilson's wife, who apparently works at the agency on WMD (weapons of mass destruction) issues, who authorized the trip."

Rove lawyer Robert Luskin did not dispute the authenticity of the e-mail, but said the account shows that Rove wanted to steer reporters away from Wilson's allegations -- "not to encourage them to publish anything about Wilson's wife."

Disclosing the identity of undercover intelligence operatives is a felony punishable up to 10 years in prison, but Luskin said Rove was not aware that Plame was an undercover agent.

Bush had cited the Niger uranium claim in his 2003 State of the Union address, delivered as a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq loomed. But nearly three months after the fall of Baghdad, Wilson said he had investigated that claim in 2002 and found it unlikely to have occurred.

Wilson wrote in The New York Times that his trip to Niger had been taken at the request of the CIA to answer a query from Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Plame's identity was revealed in a July 14, 2003, column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, a former CNN "Crossfire" host, who cited two "senior administration officials."

Wilson has said the leak ruined his wife's career, may have endangered her life and was meant to deter future administration critics.

Editors at Time surrendered the e-mail notes to Fitzgerald after a lengthy confrontation that ended last week with New York Times reporter Judith Miller going to jail rather than divulge her sources.

Faced with the same prospect, Cooper said that his source waived a confidentiality pledge and that he would testify to the grand jury investigating the leak.

Time is owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.

CNN White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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