WASHINGTON - White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove told President Bush and others that he never engaged in an effort to disclose a CIA operative's identity to discredit her husband's criticism of the administration's Iraq policy, according to people with knowledge of Rove's account in the investigation.
They said Rove's denial to Bush occurred during a brief conversation in the fall of 2003, a few months after media reports revealed that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked as a covert CIA operative.
Those with direct knowledge of evidence gathered in the criminal investigation spoke to The Associated Press only on condition of anonymity because of grand jury secrecy.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is wrapping up an investigation into whether Rove; Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby; or other White House aides divulged Plame's identity in violation of federal law.
Besides the disclosure of Plame's identity, the investigation is examining whether presidential aides mishandled classified information, made false statements or obstructed justice.
Rove is slated to testify before the grand jury soon for a fourth time, although prosecutors have told him they no longer can assure he will avoid indictment. Rove offered in July to return to the grand jury for additional testimony, and Fitzgerald accepted that offer after taking grand jury testimony from the formerly jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
The discussion with Bush, along with others, was general and did not get into specifics concerning Rove's contacts with two reporters, Time magazine's Matthew Cooper and syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who wrote stories identifying Plame, the people familiar with Rove's account said.
They said Bush asked Rove to assure him he was not involved in an effort to divulge Plame's identity and punish Wilson, and the longtime confidant assured him so. He answered similarly when White House press secretary Scott McClellan asked a similar question.
Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, declined Friday to comment on the specifics of the discussions with Bush but confirmed his client maintains - then and now - he did not engage in an effort to disclose Plame's identity.
Rove has told a grand jury he first learned of Plame's work for the CIA from news reporters and then discussed it with Novak and Cooper.
"Did Karl purposely set out to disclose Valerie Plame's identity in order to punish Joe Wilson for his criticism? The answer is, 'No,'" Luskin said. "That was his answer in July 2003 and in October 2003 (when he first testified) And it remains his answer today."
"He always truthfully denied that he was ever part of any campaign to punish Joe Wilson by disclosing the identity of his wife," Luskin said.
In addition to Rove's discussions with reporters, investigators are also looking into a delay in learning about Rove's contact with Cooper and an e-mail between Rove and now-National Security Adviser Steve Hadley that referenced the conversation.
Cooper's contact with Rove did not come up in Rove's first interview or grand jury appearance, but he volunteered the information and provided the email during a second grand jury appearance.
Wilson, Plame's husband, went public on July 6, 2003, with criticism of Bush administration officials, suggesting they manipulated intelligence to justify the Iraq war.
Eight days later, Novak revealed the identity of Wilson's wife, giving her maiden name, Valerie Plame, the name she used as a covert CIA officer. Novak said his information about Wilson's wife had come from two senior administration officials.
Rove acknowledged talking to Novak about the story. Cooper's wrote a similar story a few days after also talking with Rove.