Just 20 seconds to out Plame

Columnist Robert Novak said Wednesday that a conversation with White House aide Karl Rove that became an important part of the Valerie Plame affair lasted about 20 seconds.

Novak gave his first extended interview about his role in the CIA leak probe, telling Fox News that Rove was a confirming source for Novak’s column that outed Plame’s CIA identity.

The Novak-Rove conversation became a focus of the investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald into who leaked Plame’s identity to the news media. A month ago, the prosecutor said he doesn’t anticipate seeking criminal charges against Rove.

Novak said he called Rove in July 2003 to talk about a CIA-sponsored mission to Africa by Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson pertaining to an alleged Iraqi deal to acquire yellowcake uranium from the government of Niger. Wilson, who is Plame’s husband, had accused the Bush administration a few days earlier of manipulating prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction.

Regarding Wilson’s CIA-sponsored trip, Novak said he told Rove, “I understand that his wife works at the CIA and she initiated the mission.” The columnist said Rove replied, “Oh, you know that, too.”

“I took that as a confirmation that she worked with the CIA and initiated” her husband’s mission to Africa, Novak said. “I really distinctly remember him saying, ‘You know that, too.'”

“We talked about Joe Wilson’s wife for about maybe 20 seconds,” Novak said.

According to Rove’s legal team, the White House political adviser recalls the conversation regarding Wilson’s wife differently, saying that he replied to Novak that “I’ve heard that, too” rather than “You know that, too.”

Novak refused to identify his main source for his column revealing Plame’s CIA identity. Novak said the source was a senior administration official who revealed the CIA employment of Wilson’s wife after the columnist asked why the CIA would have sent Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who had never worked at the CIA, on such a mission.

“I don’t believe that it was a conscious leak,” Novak said of the source.

Novak’s column on July 14, 2003, touched off a criminal investigation that has resulted in the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, who faces trial next year on charges of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI. He is accused of lying about how he found out about the CIA identity of Wilson’s wife and what he told reporters about it.

© 2006 The Associated Press