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Mr. Rove's Leak

Washington Post Friday, July 15, 2005; Page A22

THE UPROAR over Karl Rove's involvement in the leak of a CIA agent's identity makes this the third consecutive Washington summer to feature a tempest over what should have been a long-forgotten visit to the African nation of Niger by retired ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. There are serious questions about Mr. Rove's behavior, as well as his misleading public accounting for it during the past two years. Certainly, the revelation that Mr. Rove discussed Mr. Wilson's wife with at least one reporter undermines the White House's highhanded pronouncements that it was "just totally ridiculous" to think that Mr. Rove had anything to do with the leak of Valerie Plame's identity.

But much is still unknown, and Democratic demands that Mr. Rove be fired immediately seem premature given the murky state of the evidence. While we await more facts, it's worth remembering some from the previous episodes of this strange story -- including a few that have been mangled or forgotten.

Mr. Wilson made his trip in 2002 to look into reports that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. A year later, he publicly surfaced and loudly proclaimed that the Bush administration should have known that its conclusion that Iraq had sought such supplies, included in the president's 2003 State of the Union address, was wrong. He said he had debunked that theory and that his report had circulated at the highest levels of government.

One year after that, reports by two official investigations -- Britain's Butler Commission and the Senate intelligence committee -- demonstrated that Mr. Wilson's portrayal of himself as a whistle-blower was unwarranted. It turned out his report to the CIA had not altered, and may even have strengthened, the agency's conclusion that Iraq had explored uranium purchases from Niger. Moreover, his account had not reached Vice President Cheney or any other senior official. According to the Butler Commission, led by an independent jurist, the assertion about African uranium included in Mr. Bush's State of the Union speech was "well-founded."

That brings us to this year's dust-up, which concerns whether Mr. Rove or other administration officials should be held culpable for leaking to journalists the fact that Mr. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent. Reporters were told that Ms. Plame recommended Mr. Wilson for the Niger trip -- a fact denied by Mr. Wilson but subsequently confirmed by the Senate investigation. A federal prosecutor is conducting a criminal probe that has, among other things, unearthed an e-mail from Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper revealing that Mr. Rove told him about Ms. Plame's role in her husband's trip.

This gives the lie to White House denials that Mr. Rove was involved in the leak. Mr. Rove and White House spokesman Scott McClellan can fairly be accused, at the very least, of responding to questions about the affair with the sort of misleading legalisms and evasions that Republicans once rightly condemned President Bill Clinton for employing. "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name," Mr. Rove told CNN last year. Technically true, perhaps, but hardly a model of straightforwardness and probity. Asked about the leak, Mr. McClellan waxed indignant: "That is not the way this White House operates," he said. Or is it?

At the same time, Mr. Rove and other administration officials had a legitimate interest in rebutting Mr. Wilson's inflated claims -- including the notion that he had been dispatched to Niger at Mr. Cheney's behest. It's in that context, judging from Mr. Cooper's e-mail, that Mr. Rove appears to have brought up Ms. Plame's role. Whether Mr. Rove or others behaved in a way that amounted to criminal, malicious or even merely sleazy behavior will turn on what they knew about Ms. Plame's employment. Were they aware she was a covert agent? Did they recklessly fail to consider that before revealing her involvement? How they learned about Ms. Plame also will matter: Did the information come from government sources or outside parties?

It may be that Mr. Rove, or someone else, will turn out to be guilty of deliberately leaking Ms. Plame's identity, knowing that it would blow her cover. Or officials may have conspired to cover up a leak or lied about it under oath. For now, however, it remains to be established that such misconduct occurred.