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Rove Again Testifies to Jury in CIA Leak Case

April 27, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Presidential advisor Karl Rove was called again before a federal grand jury Wednesday, a surprise appearance signaling that a perjury and obstruction investigation into his role in a CIA leak case remained alive.

As the White House was introducing a new press secretary in an effort to put a new face on a troubled administration, Rove testified for three hours before the grand jury. Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is investigating whether Rove lied to investigators in connection with the summer 2003 disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.

The appearance -- Rove's fifth before a grand jury in the case -- comes six months after a previous grand jury expired without indicting Rove, raising expectations among his supporters that he would not be charged in the case.

That grand jury indicted another top Bush administration aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose trial on perjury and obstruction charges is to begin in January.

Robert D. Luskin, Rove's lawyer, said Wednesday that Fitzgerald had made no decision on whether to bring charges against Rove.

Some legal experts said the timing and circumstances of Rove's latest testimony, which Luskin said was given "voluntarily and unconditionally," suggested that an indictment might not be imminent and that the development could be viewed as positive for Rove.

Luskin said the subject of Rove's testimony Wednesday involved a matter that had arisen since he last testified in October. It is believed to involve the chain of events that followed a belatedly disclosed conversation between Luskin and a Time magazine reporter about Rove's contact with another Time reporter.

The lawyer added that Fitzgerald had continued to advise Rove that he was not an investigation "target," a legal distinction that refers to a formal notification prosecutors give suspects about to be charged.

Fitzgerald declined to talk to reporters as he left the courthouse.

The grand jury appearance comes a week after the presidential advisor was relieved of his policy responsibilities at the White House to focus on electoral politics.

At the time of the change in Rove's portfolio, White House aides said it was part of a broader reorganization and unrelated to Rove's ongoing legal vulnerability. But the request for him to testify again is believed to have come several weeks ago, and the White House may have been aware that his legal troubles were likely to flare again.

Coincidentally or not, last week's action helped inoculate the White House against Rove's latest appearance before the grand jury. If Rove is indicted and forced to resign, the White House can say that Rove's substantive policy responsibilities have already been transferred.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, whose resignation was announced as part of last week's White House reorganization, declined to answer any questions about the grand jury appearance.

"I have no new information on that matter, and even if I did have new information, I wouldn't be in a position to share it with you," McClellan said. Fox News commentator Tony Snow was named Wednesday as McClellan's successor.

Fitzgerald's investigation has led to a series of embarrassing disclosures about White House efforts to discredit an Iraq war critic who is married to Plame.

The White House initially denied any involvement in the unmasking of Plame, who was first identified by syndicated columnist Robert Novak in a July 2003 article. But Fitzgerald found that Rove and Libby had actively talked with reporters about Plame at the time, although both deny they broke any laws. It is a crime under federal law to knowingly disclose the name of a covert agent.

Fitzgerald's probe also turned up an organized White House effort to rebut allegations made at the time by Plame's husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, that the Bush administration had twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. According to a court filing, Libby testified that President Bush had ordered the leaking of a classified document to counter Wilson's criticism.

Rove has been a focus for Fitzgerald because he initially told a grand jury in February 2004 that he had not spoken about Plame with Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper.

When later presented with a document indicating the men had talked, Rove -- who had previously acknowledged to investigators that he had been a source for the Novak article -- said he had forgotten the conversation with Cooper.

A person briefed on Wednesday's testimony described the examination by Fitzgerald as "an exploration of the back story" of what Rove knew about Cooper and when, including an explanation that Rove's attorney had offered up for the delay. The person declined to be identified because of the ongoing investigation.

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