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Rove Is Spared -- for Now

Bush's top advisor appeared to be targeted. But after negotiations and another look at the evidence, the prosecutor decides to hold off.

October 29, 2005|Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As it came down to judgment day this week in the investigation into the exposure of a covert CIA operative, White House advisor Karl Rove braced for a possible indictment. But at the last minute, new information, reevaluation of older evidence and negotiations with Rove's lawyers combined to spare the top White House aide for now, according to sources close to Rove and familiar with the inquiry.

As recently as Tuesday, for example, prosecutors began to focus on a 2003 e-mail exchange between Rove and a White House colleague. The exchange could be seen as supporting Rove's contention that he had not intentionally misled investigators.

Lawyers familiar with the case believe these e-mails were one element of a broad, eleventh-hour review of evidence -- coupled with negotiations by Rove's lawyers -- that led Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald not to include him in Friday's action.

"In the normal back-and-forth between prosecutor and defense attorneys, some issues were raised that made the prosecutor step back and have pause for thought as far as his future activities," a source close to Rove said. "He thought, 'This is enough for me to hold off making decisions.' "

Friday's announcement that Fitzgerald would charge I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, while withholding judgment on others -- including Rove -- was greeted as a positive sign by Rove's close associates, amid lingering concerns that he could yet face prosecution.

Senior Republican strategists had feared a debilitating and embarrassing blow to President Bush if Rove were charged with a crime and forced to resign. After all, he is far more than a senior White House official or political insider. Rove is widely seen as the political mastermind behind Bush's ascent to the White House and the chief architect of White House political strategy ever since.

Fitzgerald, by extending his investigation beyond the Friday expiration date of the grand jury, could still decide to charge Rove, as well as other administration officials.

But for now, Rove appeared to live up to the nickname bestowed upon him by Bush: "Turdblossom," a moniker that spoke to the strategist's uncanny pattern of surviving unpleasant situations, and sometimes seeming to thrive on them.

Rather than being portrayed as having engaged in criminal activity, Rove was mentioned only in passing as part of the 22-page indictment of Libby -- identified obliquely as "Official A" in the narrative explaining Libby's role in the 2003 exposure of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Rove's allies had feared that Fitzgerald was zeroing in on an indictment of Rove, perhaps on charges of perjury or obstruction of justice, for his failure at first to report a conversation with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. In that conversation, according to Cooper, Rove mentioned that Plame may have been responsible for sending her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, on a mission to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to buy nuclear materials from Niger.

The e-mail exchange reviewed by prosecutors was between Rove and former White House media spokesman Adam Levine, and it focused on a topic unrelated to Plame or Wilson.

The exchange occurred several hours after Rove had talked to Time reporter Cooper. Prosecutors went back and interviewed Levine again this week, asking whether Rove had mentioned his conversations with Cooper. Rove did not initially tell investigators about his conversation with Cooper. In another session, Rove recalled that he had spoken with the reporter.

Levine told investigators that Rove had not brought up Plame or the Cooper conversation -- suggesting that the topics were not priorities for Rove at the time.

"Levine's acknowledgment that the Cooper conversation did not come up in my client's conversation with Rove seems to support a theory that it just wasn't that important to Rove and could therefore have been easily forgotten," said Daniel French, Levine's attorney.

The e-mail exchange was just one part of a broad array of evidence reviewed this week by prosecutors as they decided whom to indict and what charges to file. Rove's lawyers actively pressed their client's case, but Fitzgerald insisted that the substance of the last-minute negotiations remain confidential.

Rove associates said Friday there was never any talk of plea deals, and that his lawyers remained convinced that he broke no laws.

Although Rove was not indicted in the case, he and Libby were identified early as the leading White House players in a campaign to discredit Wilson after he criticized the administration. By most accounts, it was Libby who was driving the effort to learn about Wilson and discredit him, just as Libby and the vice president's office played the most aggressive role in building the case for war with Iraq.

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