WASHINGTON — Prosecutors have gathered evidence that top White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby exchanged information about their contacts with reporters regarding Valerie Plame in the days just before the CIA officer's cover was blown.
Rove told grand jurors it was even possible he first learned inside the White House from Libby that Bush administration critic Joe Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, according to people directly familiar with the testimony of President Bush's closest political adviser.
The disclosure is the first known intersection between two central figures in the criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity.
Rove testified that his discussions with Libby before Plame's identity was made public were limited to information reporters had passed them, the people said. Some evidence prosecutors have gathered conflicts with Libby's account of dealings with reporters.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald must determine whether the contacts were part of a concerted effort to illegally divulge Plame's CIA identity and undercut her husband's public criticism of the Iraq war or simply the trading of news and rumors that typically occurs inside the White House.
The prosecutor also is examining whether any witnesses gave false testimony or withheld information from the investigation. His spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined comment Wednesday.
The Rove-Libby contacts were confirmed to The Associated Press by people directly familiar with testimony the two witnesses gave or were shown before the grand jury. All spoke solely on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the proceedings.
Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, did not return repeated phone calls this week seeking comment.
Rove and Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, have emerged as central figures in Fitzgerald's investigation because both had contacts with reporters who ultimately disclosed Plame's work for the CIA.
Federal law prohibits government officials from knowingly disclosing the identity of intelligence operatives.
Those familiar with the testimony and evidence said that during one of his grand jury appearances, Rove was shown testimony from Libby suggesting the two had discussed with each other information they had gotten about Wilson's wife from reporters in early July 2003.
Rove responded that Libby's testimony was consistent with his general recollection that he first had learned that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA from reporters or government officials who had talked with reporters.
Rove testified that he never intended any of his comments to reporters about Wilson's wife to serve as confirmation of Plame's identity.
On July 9, 2003, columnist Robert Novak told Rove he was writing a column that would report that Plame worked for the CIA, and Rove told the columnist he had heard similar information, according to his testimony.
Novak published a column the next week that said Plame worked for the CIA and had suggested that her agency send Wilson, a former ambassador, on a mission that raised questions about prewar intelligence the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq.
Rove testified he told Libby about his contact with Novak about two days after it occurred.
In testimony shown to Rove, Libby stated Rove had told him about his contact with Novak and said he had told Rove about information he had gotten about Wilson's wife from NBC newsman Tim Russert, according to a person directly familiar with the information shown to Rove.
Prosecutors, however, have a different account from Russert. The network has said Russert told authorities he did not know about Wilson's wife's identity until it was published and therefore could not have told Libby about it.
Prosecutors also have evidence that Libby initiated the call with Russert and had initiated similar contact with another reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, several weeks earlier.
Rove was pressed by prosecutors on several matters, including why he failed to mention during the first of his four grand jury appearances that he also has discussed the Plame matter with a second reporter, Matt Cooper of Time magazine.
Rove testified during the first appearance about his contacts with Novak in the days before the columnist wrote about Plame. When asked generally if he had conversations with other reporters in that session, he answered no.
Rove and his lawyer subsequently discovered an e-mail Rove had sent top national security aide Stephen Hadley referencing a brief phone interview he had with Cooper.
The e-mail jogged Rove's memory and during a subsequent grand jury appearance, he volunteered his recollections about his conversation with Cooper, and his lawyer provided the e-mail to prosecutors. Cooper also wrote a story about Plame.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press