Fitzgerald is probing whether Rove and other administration officials broke the law by disclosing Valerie Plame's identity as part of an effort to discredit her husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who emerged in 2003 as a critic of Bush's Iraq policies. Wilson had undertaken a mission to Niger for the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq was trying to buy uranium for nuclear weapons and found little evidence of it.
It is a felony to knowingly disclose the name of a covert agent, and the prosecutor has not charged anyone with that crime. However, an indictment against Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, charged him with perjury, obstruction of justice and giving false statements to investigators. Libby resigned and last week pleaded not guilty.
Fitzgerald has said his inquiry is continuing, focused at least partly on Rove.
Rove has maintained through his lawyer that he did nothing wrong in this case. Although he has acknowledged discussing Wilson's wife with journalists on at least two occasions, he has emphasized that he did not know Plame's name or covert status at the time of those conversations.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified that he had learned about Wilson's wife from a July 11, 2003, conversation in which Rove told him that Wilson's wife was "responsible" for the diplomat's trip to Niger.
Cooper said Rove did not mention Wilson's wife by name or mention her covert status.
The Libby indictment also indicates that Rove spoke with syndicated columnist Robert Novak before Novak's July 14, 2003, column, which cited two unnamed administration officials linking Plame to her husband's trip -- the first time Plame's name made it into print. The indictment says that on July 10 or 11, 2003, "Official A," later identified by sources as Rove, told Libby that he had spoken with Novak. "Libby was advised by Official A that Novak would be writing a story about Wilson's wife," the indictment says.
Rove's lawyers have maintained that he breached no law because he learned Plame's name from journalists and did not know of her covert status. A source close to Rove defended the aide's actions, saying Saturday: "There has been no determination by anybody that Karl disclosed classified information. There's news reports about events, but there's been no formal finding by anyone that classified information was divulged."
Victoria Toensing, a former Justice Department official in the Reagan administration who as a Senate lawyer helped write the 1982 law protecting undercover agents, said there was no evidence that Rove had violated either the law or the nondisclosure agreement. She said an official must have known the information was classified to be punished for a disclosure.
Some administration allies argue that it was "common knowledge" that Plame worked at the CIA. If that's the case, Toensing said, "you wouldn't think that it's classified."
But there are hints that Rove might have known he was dealing with classified information in his talk with Cooper. Recounting that phone conversation in Time magazine, Cooper said his notes and e-mails indicated that Rove told him "material was going to be declassified in the coming days that would cast doubt on Wilson's mission and his findings." He remembered Rove ending the call by saying, "I've already said too much."
Intelligence experts and even some prominent conservatives say that the fate of Rove's security clearance should not depend on Fitzgerald's conclusions -- and that the White House should err on the side of caution rather than on technical questions of Rove's legal culpability.
"This president, who has raised to the top of the priority list the issue of national security, certainly should be concerned if any evidence has been developed that would indicate misuse of classified information by any member of his team, certainly somebody as high as Mr. Rove," said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia and a former CIA official and federal prosecutor.
Barr said the Justice Department should examine Rove's actions, apart from the Fitzgerald probe, to determine specifically whether Rove's security classification should be stripped.
Another leading conservative, William F. Buckley Jr., a covert agent in the 1950s in Mexico, said in a National Review column last week that disclosing the identity of a covert agent could carry "terminal consequences." Buckley did not directly address the Rove matter. Still, he wrote, "In the swirl of the Libby affair, one loses sight of the real offense, and it becomes almost inapprehensible what it is that Cheney/Libby/Rove got themselves into. But the sacredness of the law against betraying a clandestine soldier of the republic cannot be slighted."
Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) in the House and Minority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate, have called repeatedly for the revocation of Rove's clearance. Intelligence experts don't go that far, but want to know more.