Murray Waas continues to break new ground in the Plame story. As the only reporter covering the case who doesn’t impose a healthy dose of pro-crook spin on the reader in the process, today he adds quite a bit to the known facts of the Rove timeline:
On September 29, 2003, three days after it became known that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, columnist Robert Novak telephoned White House senior adviser Karl Rove to assure Rove that he would protect him from being harmed by the investigation, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the federal grand jury testimony of both men.
This was also, as emptywheel notes, one day after Mike Allen and Dana Priest published their infamous 1x2x6 article in the Washington Post, when someone in the White House spilled the beans (the notes for which Team Libby are desperately trying to get their hands on, to no avail):
… a senior administration official said that before [Robert] Novak’s column ran, two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of [Joseph] Wilson’s wife.
Waas also confirms what was already known — Ashcroft was being briefed on the details of the case, despite having close ties to Rove (prior to the newly-confirmed James Comey stepping up and telling Ashcroft he needed to recuse himself from the case. Enter Patrick Fitzgerald.)
Sources said that Ashcroft received a special briefing on the highly sensitive issue of the September 29 conversation between Novak and Rove because of the concerns of federal investigators that a well-known journalist might have been involved in an effort to not only protect a source but also work in tandem with the president’s chief political adviser to stymie the FBI.
Rove testified to the grand jury that during his telephone call with Novak, the columnist said words to the effect: "You are not going to get burned" and "I don’t give up my sources," according to people familiar with his testimony. Rove had been one of the "two senior administration" officials who had been sources for the July 14, 2003, column in which Novak outed Plame as an "agency operative." Rove and Novak had talked about Plame on July 9, five days before Novak’s column was published.
Rove also told the grand jury, according to sources, that in the September 29 conversation, Novak referred to a 1992 incident in which Rove had been fired from the Texas arm of President George H.W. Bush’s re-election effort; Rove lost his job because the Bush campaign believed that he had been the source for a Novak column that criticized the campaign’s internal workings.
Rove told the grand jury that during the September 29 call, Novak said he would make sure that nothing similar would happen to Rove in the CIA-Plame leak probe. Rove has testified that he recalled Novak saying something like, "I’m not going to let that happen to you again," according to those familiar with the testimony. Rove told the grand jury that the inference he took away from the conversation was that Novak would say that Rove was not a source of information for the column about Plame. Rove further testified that he believed he might not have been the source because when Novak mentioned to Rove that Plame worked for the CIA, Rove simply responded that he had heard the same information.
Asked during his grand jury appearance his reaction to the telephone call, Rove characterized it as a "curious conversation" and didn’t know what to make of it, according to people familiar with his testimony.
Hard to know during which of his 5 grand jury appearances, or at what point during his FBI questioning Rove volunteered any of the above, but according to Murray Rove volunteered the details of the Novak call early on:
Rove, according to attorneys involved in the case, volunteered the information about the September 29 call during his initial interview with FBI agents in the fall of 2003.
It also appears that Novak was acting under a peculiar set of journalistic ethics unique to himself:
Mark Feldstein, the director of journalism programs at George Washington University, said that Novak apparently acted outside traditional journalistic standards by reaching out to Rove after he believed that a criminal investigation had commenced: "A journalist’s natural instinct is to protect his source. Were there no criminal investigation, it would have been more than appropriate for a reporter to say to a source, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to out you.’ But if there is a criminal investigation under way, you can’t escape the inference that you are calling to coordinate your stories. You go very quickly from being a stand-up reporter to impairing a criminal investigation."
A second reason that federal investigators were suspicious, sources said, is that they believed that after the September 29 call, Novak shifted his account of his July 9, 2003, conversation with Rove to show that administration officials had a passive role in leaking Plame’s identity.
On July 22, 2003 — eight days after the publication of Novak’s column on Plame — Newsday reporters Timothy Phelps and Knut Royce quoted Novak as telling them in an interview that it was White House officials who encouraged him to write about Plame. "I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me," Newsday quoted Novak as saying about Plame. "They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it."
If Novak’s interview with Phelps and Royce was accurate, sources said, it suggests that Rove was actively involved in trying to expose Plame’s CIA job.
Most tantalizingly, we get a glimpse of what Rove’s actual story might be at this point:
According to sources, Rove told the FBI and testified to the federal grand jury that he first heard that Plame worked for the CIA from a person whose name he could not remember. That person, he said, might have been a journalist, although he was not certain. Rove has also said that he could not recall whether the conversation took place in person or over the telephone.
Rove has testified that he heard more about Plame from Novak, who had originally called him on July 9 about an entirely different matter. It was only at the end of their conversation that Rove heard that Plame worked for the CIA and had some role in sending her husband on his CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, Rove has testified. Having been told this information by Novak, Rove told the FBI, he simply said he had heard the same thing.
Rove told the FBI that on July 11, 2003, two days after his conversation with Novak, he spoke privately with Libby at the end of a White House senior staff meeting. According to Rove’s account, he told Libby of his conversation with Novak, whereupon Libby told him that he, too, had heard the same information from journalists who were writing about the Niger controversy.
Rove has testified that based on his conversation with the first person he had spoken to (whom he cannot identify), what Novak told him, and what Libby said, he had come to believe that Plame might have worked for the CIA.
As Murray points out, if this is true then Robert Novak outed a CIA agent on something that had been passed on to him as unverifiable gossip by his sources. The ethically-challenged Novakula should feel quite comfortable in his new home at Fox News.