WASHINGTON (CNN) – White House political adviser Karl Rove denied Sunday he confirmed the identity of ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson for a 2003 newspaper column, but a reporter who testified in the leak probe called that "nonsense."
In comments to two Sunday talk shows, Rove disputed columnist and former CNN host Robert Novak's account of the leak. Novak, who disclosed Mrs. Wilson's identity in a July 2003 column, has said Rove confirmed her identity after another Bush administration official, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, first told him she worked for the CIA.
Rove told NBC's "Meet the Press" that, when Novak asked him about Mrs. Wilson, he told the columnist, "I've heard that, too." But he insisted that did not mean he had confirmed her identity.
"If a journalist had said to me, 'I'd like you to confirm this,' my answer would have been, 'I can't. I don't know. I've heard that, too,' " he said.
Mrs. Wilson's identity was disclosed shortly after her husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, challenged one of the claims underpinning the Bush administration's case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq - that Iraq had sought uranium for nuclear weapons from the African country of Niger. Wilson wrote that he had investigated the claim at the request of CIA officials and found it "highly doubtful" that any such transaction could have occurred, and he accused the Bush administration of having "twisted" the evidence for war.
Rove is leaving office at month's end after more than a dozen years as President Bush's top political adviser. He made multiple appearances before the grand jury that investigated Wilson's exposure, but was never charged with a crime in the leak; neither was Armitage, who also cooperated with the special prosecutor who led the probe.
But former Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper, who testified about his conversations with Rove in the grand jury probe, said Rove's account was "dissembling, to put it charitably."
"To imply that he didn't know about it or that this was all the leak by someone else, or he heard it as some rumor out in the hallway is, is nonsense," Cooper told NBC.
The Wilsons have accused Rove and other Bush administration officials of leaking her identity as a CIA officer in retaliation for her husband's emergence as a critic of the administration. A federal judge in Washington recently dismissed a lawsuit by the couple against Rove, Armitage, Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of obstructing justice and perjury in the probe.
Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison, but Bush commuted his term before he had served any time.
Rove said Mrs. Wilson was not an appropriate target for political reprisals, but told NBC he did not owe her an apology. And he said, contrary to the former ambassador's public statements, Wilson's report actually bolstered the disputed Iraq-Niger link.
"He brought back information about a previously unknown contact where the Iraqis, working through a third party, attempted to bring and did bring to Niger a trade delegation," Rove said. "And since the only thing Niger had to sell was uranium cake that was on a U.N. sanctions list, they declined to do any business."
After Wilson went public with his findings, then-CIA Director George Tenet said the Niger uranium claim should have been left out of President Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, delivered on the eve of war. Before the March 2003 invasion, U.N. weapons inspectors dismissed documents containing the claim as "obvious" forgeries.
After the invasion, Iraq was found to have dismantled its weapons programs under U.N. sanctions during the 1990s, though U.S. inspectors found scientists had concealed some weapons-related research from the United Nations.