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Plame's employment with the CIA had been detailed in a highly classified State Department memorandumcirculated to senior Bush administration officialsin the days jut prior to conversations between Rove and Libby and journalists regarding Plame.
Dated June 10, 2003, the memo was written for Marc Grossman, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs. It mentioned Plame, her employment with the CIA, and her possible role in recommending her husband for the Niger mission because he had previously served in the region. The mention of Plame's CIA employment was classified "Secret" and was contained in the second paragraph of the three-page classified paper.
On July 6, 2003, Wilson published his now famous New York Times op-ed and appeared on "Meet the Press." The following day, on July 7, the memo was sent to then secretary of state Colin L. Powell and other senior Bush administration officials, who were scrambling to respond to the public criticism. At the time, Powell and other senior administration officials were on their way to Africa aboard Air Force One as members of the presidential entourage for a state visit to Africa.
Rove and Libby apparently were not on that trip, according to press accounts. But a subpoena during the earliest days of the Plame investigation demanded records related to any telephone phone calls to and from Air Force One from July 7 to July 12, during Bush's African visit.
On July 8, Novak and Rove first spoke about Plame, according to numerous press accounts. That very same day, as the American Prospect recently disclosed, Libby and New York Times reporter Judith Miller also discussed Plame.
On July 9, then CIA director George Tenet ordered aides to draft a statement that the Niger information the president relied on "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for the presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed." Rove and Libby were reportedly involved in the drafting of that statement's language.
Two days later, on July 11, Rove spoke about Plame to Time magazine's Matthew Cooper.
On the following day, July 12, an administration official apparently not Rove or Libbytold Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that Wilson was sent to Niger on the recommendation of his wife, who worked at the CIA.
Two days after that, on July 14, Novak published his column disclosing Plame's employment with the CIA, describing her as an "agency operative" and alleging that she suggested her husband for the Niger mission.
And on July 17, Time magazine posted its own story online, which said: "[S]ome government officials have noted to Time in interviews . . . that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These officials have suggested that she was involved in her husband's being dispatched to Niger." Facing jail time for not disclosing his source, Cooper recently relented, and disclosed that Rove was one of his sources for that information.
But it was Rove's omission during an initial interview, back in October 2003, with the FBIthat he had ever spoken with Cooper at allcoupled with the fact that Ashcroft was briefed about the interview, that largely precipitated the appointment of Fitzgerald as special prosecutor, according to senior law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.
Comey, then only recently named deputy attorney general, called a press conference and dramatically announced: "Effective today, the attorney general has recused himself . . . from further involvement in these matters."
He also said he was naming Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who also serves as U.S. attorney in Chicago, as special prosecutor to take over the case. To further assure his independence, Comey also announced that he personally would serve as "acting Attorney General for purposes of this matter."
Last week, however, Comey announced he was leaving the Justice Department to become the general counsel of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. In his absence, Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum is the most likely choice to be named as the acting deputy attorney general, and thus the man overseeing Fitzgerald's work. But McCallum has been a close personal friend of President Bush. Justice Department officials are once more grappling as to how to best assure independence for investigators. And Democrats on Capitol Hill are unlikely not to question any role in the leak probe by McCallum.
[Update: Since this article was originally posted, the Justice Department announced that David Margolis, an associate deputy general, would take the place of outgoing Deputy Attorney General James Comey in supervising Fitzgerald's investigation.]
(Alberto Gonzalez, who succeeded Ashcroft as attorney general, had alsolike Ashcroftrecused himself from the case. Gonzalez had overseen the response of White House officials to requests from investigators working the Plame case while he was White House counsel, and has also been a witness before Fitzgerald's grand jury.)
In the meantime, Fitzgerald's investigation appears to be in its final stages.
Nineteen months ago, when Comey appointed him as special prosecutor, reporters pressed Comey during the announcement as to what was behind his dramatic action. All that he would say at the time was: "If you were to speculate in print or in the media about particular people, I think that would be unfair to them.
Then he added, almost as an afterthought: "We also don't want people that we might be interested in to know we're interested in them."