Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft continued to oversee the Valerie Plame-CIA leak probe for more than two months in late 2003 after he learned in extensive briefings that FBI agents suspected White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby of trying to mislead the FBI to conceal their roles in the leak, according to government records and interviews. Despite these briefings, which took place between October and December 2003, and despite the fact that senior White House aides might become central to the leak case, Ashcroft did not recuse himself from the matter until December 30, when he allowed the appointment of a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, to take over the investigation.
In late 2003, the attorney general was told that FBI agents suspected White House aides of trying to conceal their roles in leaking Valerie Plame’s identity.
According to people with firsthand knowledge of the briefings, senior Justice Department officials told Ashcroft that the FBI had uncovered evidence that Libby, then chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, had misled the bureau about his role in the leaking of Plame’s identity to the press.
By November, investigators had obtained personal notes of Libby’s that indicated he had first learned from Cheney that Plame was a CIA officer. But Libby was insisting in FBI interviews that he had learned Plame’s name and identity from journalists. Libby was also telling investigators that when he told reporters that Plame worked for the CIA, he was only passing along an unsubstantiated rumor.
Officials also told Ashcroft that investigators did not believe Libby’s account, according to sources knowledgeable about the briefings, and that Libby might have lied to the FBI to defend other – more senior – administration officials.
Ashcroft was told no later than November 2003 that investigators also doubted the accounts that Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, had given the FBI as to how he, too, learned that Plame was a CIA officer and how he came to disclose that information to columnist Robert Novak.
It was Novak who, in a July 14, 2003, syndicated column, outed Plame as a CIA employee, relying on Rove as one of his sources.
In a briefing devoted specifically to Rove and Novak, sources said, officials told Ashcroft that investigators believed it was possible that the presidential aide and the columnist had devised a cover story to present to the FBI to make it appear that Rove had not been a source for Novak’s column.
Ashcroft’s decision to continue overseeing the leak investigation through December of 2003 was a sore point among some federal investigators: Rove and Libby were top aides to the president and vice president at the time, and Rove also had been a political consultant to Ashcroft in his senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns.