White House Zips Its Lip on Plame Scandal

The White House is maintaining silence over the leak of a CIA officer’s identity despite a journalist’s disclosure that Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide was a source for a story about the intelligence agent.

A role for Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby is among details revealed Sunday by Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who wrote a first-person account in this week’s issue.

Recounting a July 11, 2003, conversation with senior Bush political adviser Karl Rove, Cooper recalled that Rove told him, “I’ve already said too much” after revealing that the wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson apparently worked at the CIA.

Cooper speculated that Rove could have been “worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else.”

“I don’t know, but that signoff has been in my memory for two years,” Cooper wrote.

Until it refused to issue more denials last week, the White House had insisted for nearly two years that Libby and Rove had no connection to the leak of the identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame.

On Sunday, Bush administration spokesman David Almacy declined to comment about Libby, citing an independent counsel’s ongoing investigation of the case.

Cooper said the 2003 phone call with Rove was the first time he had heard anything about Wilson’s wife.

He said he had a subsequent conversation about Wilson and his wife with Libby.

According to Cooper, “Libby replied, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that too’ or words to that effect” when Cooper asked if Libby had heard anything about Wilson’s wife sending her husband to the African nation of Niger to investigate the possible sale of uranium to Iraq for nuclear weapons.

As part of Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal probe of the identity leak, Cooper testified about his conversation with Libby in a deposition at his lawyer’s office in August 2004. Libby, as Rove did this month, provided a specific waiver of confidentiality. In a grand jury appearance last Wednesday, Cooper gave his account of what Rove told him.

Cooper also said there may have been other government officials who were sources for his article. Time posted “A War on Wilson?” on its Web site on July 17, 2003.

In an effort to quell a chorus of calls to fire Rove, Republicans said Sunday that he first learned about Plame’s identity from the news media.

“The information exonerates and vindicates, it does not implicate” Rove, Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Folks involved in this, frankly, owe Karl Rove an apology.”

There were no takers.

The White House’s assurance in 2003 that Rove was not involved in the leak of the CIA officer’s identity “was a lie” and Rove’s credibility “is in shreds,” said John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

It is unclear whether a journalist first revealed the information to Rove, as Mehlman said.

A lawyer familiar with Rove’s grand jury testimony said Rove learned about the CIA officer either from the media or from someone in government who said the information came from a journalist. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity because the federal investigation is continuing.

Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Wilson said, “I believe that using the West Wing of the White House to be engaged in a smear campaign is an outrageous abuse of power.”

The CIA sent Wilson to check out intelligence that the government of Niger had a deal for the sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson did not find that such a deal took place.

Five days before Cooper’s conversation with Rove, an op-ed piece by Wilson had appeared in The New York Times suggesting the Bush administration had manipulated pre-war intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the idea that Rove was involved in leaking information about Wilson’s wife was “ridiculous.”

“There’s no evidence that (Rove has) done anything criminally wrong,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS. He said the American people are taking the controversy “for what it is _ politics.”

© 2005 The Associated Press