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White House keeps its counsel on Rove

GOP leaders signal efforts to send message

WASHINGTON -- The White House won't talk about Karl Rove. But as the furor over President Bush's political strategist continues, Republican leaders have found ways to get their points across.

For the second consecutive day, the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, refused to answer questions about Rove's possible role in disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA operative, saying yesterday -- as he had the day before -- that any comments might damage an investigation into the matter.

''I want to be helpful to the investigation. I don't want to jeopardize anything in that investigation," McClellan said during another briefing as reporters bombarded him with questions about the White House deputy chief of staff.

Yet the Republican National Committee, chaired by a Rove protege, Ken Mehlman, distributed talking points defending the president's political strategist and attacking Democrats and the CIA operative's husband, a critic of the Iraq policy.

''The RNC is trying to get the attention off the White House," said David Gergen, a Harvard University government professor who has worked for presidents of both parties. ''A week ago, this was all about the press. Now it's back to the White House, which is not what they want."

The controversy has exploded lately after disclosures that Rove was a source for a July 17, 2003, article on Time magazine's website. That article questioned whether the Bush administration had ''declared war" on the former ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Wilson had traveled to Africa in 2002, to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase weapons-grade uranium.

On July 6, 2003, The New York Times published an opinion article by Wilson that criticized those assertions, a key underpinning for the White House's case for invading Iraq. The article on Time magazine's website, coauthored by Matthew Cooper, cited ''some government officials" as identifying Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA officer, and as saying she had been involved in dispatching her husband to Africa.

In a court proceeding last week, Cooper said his source had authorized him to reveal his identity to a federal grand jury investigating whether the release of Plame's affiliation violated a federal law barring disclosure of a covert agent's identity. The decision allowed Cooper to avoid a jail term for refusing a special prosecutor's order to reveal a source. A reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, was jailed for having rebuffed a similar order to reveal her sources.

Although Cooper did not publicly identify Rove as his source, Newsweek Sunday published the contents of a 2003 e-mail message from the reporter to his editors, saying Rove had told him that Wilson's trip had been authorized by his wife.

McClellan refused to square the latest disclosures with his assertions in September and October of 2003 that Rove was not involved in leaking Plame's identity to the media. ''The president knows that Karl Rove wasn't involved," McClellan said at the time.

But now, McClellan said yesterday, it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the matter because of the investigation.

Republican officials had no such reservations. The RNC talking points, distributed to Republicans on Capitol Hill and party operatives across the country, provided a defense of Rove's role in the Plame case, saying that he only discussed the situation with Cooper to prevent him from writing something inaccurate.

Bush was asked about Rove at the end of an Oval Office photo session yesterday with the prime minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, but he did not reply to a shouted question as aides ushered reporters out of the room. Later, a senior administration official said: ''We've lived with the investigation for two years and we're not changing approach or focus now."

But Gergen, who began his career in politics as an assistant to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, questioned the White House strategy. ''They ought to do an about-face and put out the full facts and quell the storm," he said.

''Their danger is, if they allow this to keep whipping up in the press, Rove could be wounded. And this president does not want to lose Karl Rove."

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