WASHINGTON — Top aides to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were intensely focused on discrediting former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV in the days after he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times suggesting the administration manipulated intelligence to justify going to war in Iraq, federal investigators have been told.
Prosecutors investigating whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of Wilson's wife, a CIA officer who had worked undercover, have been told that Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove, and Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, were especially intent on undercutting Wilson's credibility, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
Although lower-level White House staffers typically handle most contacts with the media, Rove and Libby began personally communicating with reporters about Wilson, prosecutors were told.
A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House. When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove reportedly responded: "He's a Democrat." Rove then cited Wilson's campaign donations, which leaned toward Democrats, the person familiar with the case said.
The disclosures about the officials' roles illustrate White House concern about Wilson's July 6, 2003, article, which challenged the administration's assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase nuclear materials. Wilson's article appeared as Rove and other Bush aides were preparing the 2004 reelection campaign strategy, which was built largely around the president's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
It is not surprising that White House officials would be upset by an attack like Wilson's or seek to respond aggressively. But special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is examining whether they or others crossed the legal line by improperly disclosing classified information, or whether they perjured themselves in testifying later about their actions. Both Rove and Libby have testified.
News of the high-level interest in discrediting Wilson comes as White House defenders, most notably officials at the Republican National Committee, argue that Rove has been vindicated of suspicion that he was a primary source of the leak. Knowingly revealing the identity of a covert operative is a federal crime.
Regardless of Rove's legal liability, the description of his role runs contrary to earlier White House statements that Rove and Libby were not involved in the unmasking of Wilson's wife, and it suggests they were part of a campaign to discredit Wilson.
Wilson, a career Foreign Service officer who served in Iraq and several African nations, was sent by the CIA in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had attempted to purchase nuclear materials from Niger. His New York Times article declaring that he had found no credible evidence of such an attempt despite the administration's continued claims that there had been one unleashed charges from White House officials that he was a partisan.
White House officials contended that he had wrongly indicated that he was sent on his mission by Cheney. In fact, Wilson had said in the article that the trip was inspired by questions raised by Cheney's office.
Eight days after Wilson's article was published, a syndicated column by Robert Novak questioned the credibility of Wilson's trip, suggesting that it had been arranged with the help of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, at the CIA.
Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has cited recent news reports that Rove heard about Wilson's wife from reporters and that he was not an original source. Those reports said that Rove in fact sought to dissuade Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper -- one of the journalists with whom he discussed Wilson's wife -- from writing a piece about Wilson's charge.
"Based on the information that has come out over the last several days, the one thing that's absolutely clear is that Karl was not the source for the leak and there's no basis for any additional speculation," Luskin said.
A White House spokesman, David Almacy, declined to comment Sunday. "This is an ongoing investigation, and we will be happy to talk about this once it is completed, but not until then," he said.
Prosecutors' intense questioning of witnesses about Rove and Libby casts doubt on assertions that the president's longtime political guru was not -- at least at some point -- in Fitzgerald's sights.
Fitzgerald is expected to conclude his investigation this year with a detailed report.
Bush said he would fire anyone responsible for any illegal leaks. Democrats have called on Bush to fire Rove, now a deputy White House chief of staff, or at least to revoke Rove's security clearance.