Naming a covert operative

With each passing day, the two-year-old story of the outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame - and the questions around whether anyone in the Bush administration violated the law in discussing her with reporters - grows ever more entangled.

Monday, President Bush said that if anyone in his administration is found to have committed a crime in the case would "no longer work in my administration." That statement represented a refinement of Bush's earlier position, that anyone found to be involved in leaking the agent's name would be fired - with no mention of the leak rising to the level of a crime.

That statement bears direct relevance to Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, who is now known to be involved in the case, but has not been accused of a crime.

Other answers are beginning to emerge. In the latest Time magazine, reporter Matt Cooper explains what he has told a grand jury and special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about his conversations with administration officials about Ms. Plame. She was discussed not by name, just as "Wilson's wife." Her husband, former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson, is an Iraq war critic who had investigated and strongly challenged Bush's claim that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa for a possible nuclear-weapons program.

What follows is a rundown on the case:

Q. What did Cooper tell the grand jury?

Last week, he testified that he first learned about Wilson's wife, and her role in the CIA as a specialist on weapons of mass destruction, from Mr. Rove in July 2003. Last August, Cooper wrote, he told the grand jury that Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had later discussed Wilson's wife, also not by name, with him. Both sources had released Cooper from a confidentiality agreement, allowing him to avoid jail for refusing to testify. (New York Times reporter Judith Miller remains in jail for refusing to testify about her own source or sources on the case.) Ms. Plame's name was first revealed in print in a column by Robert Novak published July 11, 2003. He sourced the information to two senior administration officials.

Q. What law may have been violated?

At issue is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which aims to protect the identities of "certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources." The law seeks to deter anyone "having or having had authorized access to classified information" from intentionally disclosing any information identifying a covert agent to someone who is not authorized to receive classified information. The law is punishable by a fine of up to $50,000 and up to 10 years in prison. It has proved difficult to prosecute anyone under this law, with only one known case to date.

Q. How much exposure do administration officials face under the law?

Prosecutors have questioned several officials, including Rove, Libby, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, and his predecessor, Ari Fleischer. Bush and Cheney have also been questioned on the case, but not under oath. So far, the two officials directly linked to the public revelation of a covert agent's identity are Rove and Libby. But it is not clear if their comments to the press constitute a crime. The fact that they did not mention Plame by name seems less relevant than Cooper's assertion that they did not mention that her work for the CIA was covert, lawyers say. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has stated that his client is not a "target" of the probe. But even if no one is indicted under the 1982 law, it is possible that officials could be charged with making false statements under oath.

Q. What's happening with Mr. Novak?

It is widely assumed that he has cooperated with prosecutors in the case, thus avoiding contempt charges and jail. He has refused to comment on the case, but promises answers at a later time. A lawyer with knowledge of the conversations between Rove and the prosecutors told The Washington Post last week that it was Novak who first told Rove the name of Wilson's wife. Rove also says he learned from another journalist, whose identity he cannot remember, that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

Q. What is the relevance of a State Department memo that was on Air Force One when Bush went to Africa in 2003?

The memo included information about Wilson's investigation in Africa and his wife's role at the CIA. (Wilson had said she recommended him for the Africa investigation.) That trip by Bush, which included traveling press, may have been a point of contact between administration officials with access to classified information, including that memo, and journalists interested in Wilson's accusations.

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