Did Rove get a free pass?

The first gush of instant analysis from Bush loyalists and even Washington’s media elite was that it was great news for the White House when special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald informed Karl Rove that he doesn’t anticipate seeking charges against him in the CIA leak case.

On CNN, Wolf Blitzer called it a “victory” for the White House and “bad news for some Democrats.”

And The New York Times reported: “The decision not to pursue any charges removes a potential political stumbling block for a White House that is heading into a long and difficult election season for Republicans in Congress. Mr. Fitzgerald’s decision should help the White House in what has been an unsuccessful effort to put the leak case behind it.”

Maybe. Or maybe not. For Fitzgerald may have decided it was time to remove one so-called stumbling block for the Bush-Cheney White House because he is looking to replace it with an even bigger one _ and has concluded that Rove’s future cooperation may be crucial.

And that could be bad news for former vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who has been indicted in the case — and perhaps even for his boss. For we now know that Vice President Cheney was very involved in the effort to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Iraq war, by putting out the word that Wilson was sent on a CIA fact-finding mission not because he was superbly qualified, but just because his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked at the CIA, suggested it. Problem was, Plame was a covert agent. Media disclosures of her role revealed her identity, which is a serious federal crime. To date, Cheney has never been told he was a target of the investigation.

As this case proceeds at a pace even slower than one of those NFL slow-motion replays, there is all manner of circumstantial evidence that indicates the special prosecutor may still be looking into the possibility of bringing charges against other prominent figures in the administration.

That could explain the unusual timing of Fitzgerald’s sudden decision to let Rove off the hook _ seven weeks after Rove’s fifth and last testimony before the grand jury. Rove attorney Robert Luskin chose to not release the text of Fitzgerald’s letter of written assurance, but has summarized it in a statement to the media. He said the prosecutor “formally advised us that he does not anticipate seeking charges against Karl Rove.”

Does not anticipate? So was Fitzgerald’s written assurance in the form of a cooperation agreement? “There was no quid pro quo, implicit or explicit,” Luskin maintained in an interview. Luskin added that Rove had been “as cooperative as can be” and would continue to be so. He said that Rove could be called as a witness in the case against Libby and would continue to be cooperative in that role.

Here in Washington, analytical spin can be quite twisted. As when Foxnews.com quoted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who himself was forced from public office because of his own misdeeds, on the latest Rove news: “There’s something wrong when your entire life can be under this kind of threat for two full years, you spend lots and lots of money on lawyers, lots of time going to the grand jury and there’s nothing there.”

Timeout! Nothing there? There was lots there _ lots of false statements, misstatements and downright lies. Rove made some of them under oath to the grand jury and to federal investigators. He made others to Bush-Cheney spinmeisters, who in turn dished the lies to the press and the public.

Remember Sept. 29, 2003: Rove flatly denied having “any knowledge” of the leak of Plame’s identity. The same day, then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters he had spoken to Rove and that to say Rove was involved in the leak was “a ridiculous suggestion.”

But, of course, Rove probably figured he was just operating under the traditional code of ethics that Washington politicians live by. That as long as you don’t raise your right hand and swear on a Bible, it is no crime to lie to the American people _it’s just Washington business as usual.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)