U.S. President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, testified at length on Friday for a fourth time before a grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative’s identity, as prosecutors neared a decision on whether to bring charges.
Rove spent 4 1/2 hours at the federal courthouse and was told by prosecutors they had yet to decide whether he should face charges, Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, said. Legal sources said that could soon change.
Friday’s testimony appeared to be Rove’s last opportunity to convince grand jurors that he did nothing illegal following the disclosure that he had spoken to two reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, despite earlier White House denials.
Prosecutors have told Rove, the most powerful and controversial political strategist in Washington, that they can not guarantee that he would not be indicted.
Plame’s husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson, says administration officials outed his wife, damaging her ability to work undercover, to retaliate against him for publicly questioning Bush’s justification for invading Iraq in 2003.
When pressed by reporters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not explicitly repeat past expressions of confidence in Rove, who serves as deputy chief of staff and senior adviser.
After initially promising to fire anyone found to have leaked information in the case, Bush in July offered a more qualified pledge: “If someone committed a crime they will no longer work in my administration.”
People close to the case said Rove’s unusually lengthy grand jury appearance on Friday suggested prosecutors scrutinized his earlier testimony for inconsistencies and confronted him with new information from witnesses.
“Being in there that long after testifying three times before can’t be viewed as a particularly positive sign,” said a legal source in the case.
But Zachary Carter, a former U.S. attorney in New York, warned against reading too much into the length of Rove’s appearance alone. “We’re not talking about a neutral witness. We’re talking about someone who is under investigation,” he said.
While special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald could bring charges against officials for the crime of knowingly revealing the identity of an undercover CIA operative, several lawyers in the case said he was more likely to bring a broad conspiracy charge or easier-to-prove crimes such as making false statements and perjury.
Fitzgerald could send out letters to senior administration officials advising them they are targets of his probe, and bring indictments as early as next week, the lawyers said. Fitzgerald also might decide that no crime was committed and issue a report of his findings.
“The special counsel has not advised Mr. Rove that he is a target of the investigation and affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges,” Luskin said. “The special counsel has indicated that he does not anticipate the need for Mr. Rove’s further cooperation.”
Luskin declined to discuss Rove’s testimony.
The outcome of the investigation could shake up an administration already reeling from criticism over its response to Hurricane Katrina and the indictment of House of Representatives Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas on charges related to campaign financing.
Asked if the investigation was a distraction for the White House, McClellan reeled off the president’s priority list, from Iraq to hurricane reconstruction to expanding gasoline refining capacity. “We are aware of all those things but we’ve got a lot of work to do, and that’s where we’re focused,” he said.
WHITE HOUSE ASSURANCES
Two years ago, the White House assured the public that Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby, had no role in the Plame leak. Since then, reporters have identified Rove and Libby as their sources.
Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who was jailed for 85 days before reaching an agreement to reveal her source, testified twice before the grand jury about three conversations she had with Libby.
Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper testified that Rove was the first person to tell him that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, although Cooper said Rove did not disclose her name. Cooper also discussed Wilson and his wife with Libby.
Rove also spoke to newspaper columnist Robert Novak, who first revealed Plame’s identity in a column on July 14, 2003, citing two administration officials, a legal source said.
Fitzgerald appears to be focusing on evidence that top White House officials began seeking information about Wilson and his wife in May and June of 2003, well before Wilson came out publicly accusing the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war.
© Reuters 2005.