WASHINGTON - Top White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby discussed their contacts with reporters about an undercover CIA officer in the days before her identity was published, the first known intersection between two central figures in the criminal leak investigation.
Rove told grand jurors it was possible he first heard in the White House that Valerie Plame, wife of Bush administration Joseph Wilson, worked for the CIA from Libby's recounting of a conversation with a journalist, according to people familiar with his testimony.
They said Rove testified that his discussions with Libby before Plame's CIA cover was blown were limited to information reporters had passed to them. Some evidence prosecutors have gathered conflicts with Libby's account.
Rove is deputy White House chief of staff and President Bush's closest political adviser. Libby is Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald must determine whether the contacts between the two men concerning Plame's CIA work were part of an effort to undercut her husband's criticism of the Iraq war or simply the trading of information and rumors that typically occurs inside the White House.
The prosecutor also is examining whether any witnesses gave false testimony or withheld information from the investigation. His spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment Wednesday.
The Rove-Libby contacts were confirmed to The Associated Press by people directly familiar with testimony the two witnesses gave before the grand jury. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the proceedings.
Libby's lawyer, Joseph Tate, did not return repeated phone calls this week seeking comment.
Rove and Libby have emerged as central figures in Fitzgerald's investigation because both had contacts with reporters who ultimately disclosed Plame's work for the CIA. Federal law prohibits government officials from knowingly disclosing the identity if intelligence operatives.
Those familiar with the testimony and evidence said that:
During one of his grand jury appearances, Rove was shown testimony from Libby suggesting the two had discussed with each other information they had gotten about Wilson's wife from reporters in early July 2003.
Rove responded that Libby's testimony was consistent with his general recollection that he had first learned Wilson's wife worked for the CIA from reporters or government officials who had talked with reporters.
Rove testified that he never intended any of his comments to reporters about Wilson's wife to serve as confirmation of Plame's identity. Rove "has always clearly left open that he first heard this information from Libby," said one person directly familiar with Rove's grand jury testimony.
That person said Rove testified he believes he heard general information about Wilson's wife on two occasions before he talked with reporters in July 2003 and then learned her name from syndicated columnist Robert Novak.
Rove testified he probably first heard of Wilson's wife in a casual social setting outside the White House in the spring of 2003 but could not remember who provided the information.
On July 9, 2003, Novak told him he was writing a column that would report that Plame worked for the CIA, and Rove told the columnist he had heard similar information, according to his testimony.
Novak published a column the next week that said Plame worked for the CIA and suggested her agency send Wilson, a former ambassador, on a mission that raised questions about prewar intelligence the Bush administration used to justify invading Iraq.
Rove testified he told Libby about his contact with Novak about two days after it happened.
In testimony shown to Rove, Libby stated that numerous journalists appeared to have learned about Plame's identity in the period before her name was published and that he and Rove talked to each other about their contacts with reporters.
Libby's testimony stated that Rove had told him about his contact with Novak and that Libby had told Rove about information he had gotten about Wilson's wife from NBC's Tim Russert, according to a person familiar with the information shown to Rove.
Prosecutors, however, have a different account from Russert. The network has said Russert told authorities did not know about Wilson's wife's identity until it was published and therefore could not have told Libby about it.
Prosecutors also have evidence that Libby initiated the call with Russert and had initiated similar contact with another reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, several weeks earlier. Miller was jailed for 85 days before agreeing to testify before the grand jury.
Even if Rove, Libby or other White House aides did not knowingly reveal Plame's covert identity, the prosecutor could consider other charges such as the mishandling of classified information, false statements and obstruction of justice, lawyers have said.
Rove was pressed by prosecutors on several matters, including why he failed to mention during the first of his four grand jury appearances that he also had discussed the Plame matter with a second reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine.
Rove testified during the first appearance about his contacts with Novak in the days before Novak wrote a column outing Plame's identity. When asked generally if he had conversations with other reporters in that session, he answered "no."
Rove and his lawyer subsequently discovered an e-mail Rove had sent top national security aide Steve Hadley referring to a brief phone interview he had with Cooper.
The e-mail jogged Rove's memory and during a subsequent grand jury appearance, he volunteered his recollections about his conversation with Cooper, and his lawyer provided the e-mail to prosecutors. Cooper also wrote a story about Plame.