After several days marked with a lot of White House stonewalling and partisan sniping but little in the way of news, the New York Times' David Johnston and Richard Stevenson have just broken significant new ground on the Karl Rove story.
Based on information from a confidential source who has been "officially briefed" on the matter, the Times says that Rove has told federal investigators that he received a telephone call from columnist Bob Novak on July 8, 2003. In that call, the source tells the Times, Rove "learned from the columnist the name of . . . Valerie Plame, and the circumstances in which her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, traveled to Africa to investigate possible uranium sales to Iraq." The source says that, upon hearing that information from Novak, Rove said: "I heard that, too."
Six days after that call, on July 14, 2003, Novak published a column in which he identified Wilson's wife as "Valerie Plame . . . an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."
The report of the previously undisclosed Rove-Novak call dovetails, more or less, with an account Novak gave in a follow-up column published on Oct. 1, 2003. In that column, Novak said that he first learned that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA from a "senior administration official" who told him in an "offhand revelation" in "a long conversation" that Wilson had been sent to investigate the alleged Iraq-Niger connection by the CIA's counter-proliferation section at the suggestion of one its employees, his wife.
Novak said that the "senior administration official" with whom he spoke was "no partisan gunslinger," which has always seemed to rule out Rove. But Novak said that he got confirmation of the story from "another official" who told him, "Oh, you know about it." And although the Rove and Novak accounts differ slightly -- "I heard that, too" vs. "Oh, you know about it" -- the Times' source says that Rove was indeed that second "official."
Novak declined to discuss the matter with the Times Thursday, and Rove's lawyer would say only that "any pertinent information has been provided to the prosecutor." However, the Washington Post, scrambling to play catch-up, says that "a lawyer involved in the case" who has "firsthand knowledge of the conversations between Rove and prosecutors" -- which is to say, we'd think, either Rove's lawyer, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, or a member of one of their teams -- has confirmed the account set forth in the Times.
So, the questions, and there are many. The first is the one asked of another Republican president three decades ago: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" On Sept. 29, 2003, Bush's press secretary insisted that "the president knows" that Rove wasn't involved in leaking Plame's identity. Bush did nothing to correct that statement when he spoke about the Plame leak the next day in Chicago. Instead, the president said that, "if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of." Bush said he had told "our administration, the people in my administration to be fully cooperative" with the investigation that was then just beginning. "I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business."
Did Bush know then that Rove had tipped off one reporter about the identity of Wilson's wife and confirmed it for another? If so, the president's press secretary lied to the American people in September 2003, and the president himself was far less than candid. If Bush didn't learn of Rove's role until later, why did Rove disobey Bush's request to "come forward" in September 2003? Why has the president tolerated insubordination from his closest political advisor? And assuming that Bush knows now of Rove's role, when did he finally learn of it? Was it before or after the president confirmed, on June 10, 2004, his pledge to fire anyone who leaked Plame's name? Before or after the president was interviewed by federal prosecutors on June 24, 2004? Before or after Newsweek revealed over the weekend that Rove was Cooper's source? Before or after the Times posted its source's account of the Rove-Novak call Thursday night?
There are other big questions, among them this: If it's true that Novak used Plame's name in a telephone conversation with Rove on July 8, 2003, then wasn't Rove lying when he told CNN, in the summer of 2004, that he "didn't know her name"? That one may just be a "gotcha," but this one is something more: If Rove was Novak's second source, which "senior administration official" was his first?