Rove escapes charges in CIA-leak case

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A massive burden was lifted from the shoulders of the beleaguered White House yesterday, with the news that Karl Rove, President George Bush's key political adviser, will not face criminal charges in the inquiry into the leak of the identity of a CIA officer.

The happy tidings were conveyed in a letter from the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who since autumn 2003 has been investigating an affair that has cast a heavy cloud over the administration, amid intense speculation that Mr Rove would be indicted.

That threat has now vanished, leaving the White House deputy chief of staff - the man often referred to as "Bush's brain" - free to devote himself entirely to plotting a strategy to save the Republican party from defeat in this autumn's crucial mid-term elections, in which control of both the Senate and House of Representatives is at stake.

Even before the word of Mr Fitzgerald's decision had come through, Mr Rove was doing precisely that - telling New Hampshire Republicans in a speech that they had nothing to apologise for in liberating Iraq from a tyrant, and urging the party to capitalise on the strong performance of the economy under Mr Bush.

The exoneration of Mr Rove caps the best week for Mr Bush in months, following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the long-awaited completion of a new government in Baghdad. These successes, the White House hopes, will not only improve the President's low approval ratings but give a much needed boost to Republican morale.

Beyond the elections, however, the leak investigation could still cause trouble for the administration. Mr Rove may have escaped - but Lewis "Scooter" Libby, once the powerful chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney faces trial early next year on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. At the trial, Mr Cheney could be called upon to testify.

The leak affair blew up in the summer of 2003, when the columnist Robert Novak first divulged the name of the CIA official Valerie Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a fierce critic of the Iraq war.

The assumption was that the leak was deliberately intended to discredit Mr Wilson, who had just written scathingly of a mission he had taken to Africa to check out reports that Saddam Hussein had been seeking to buy uranium there as part of a continuing programme to build a nuclear weapon.

Those claims swiftly unravelled as no WMDs - nor even serious WMD programmes - were found. Mr Fitzgerald's inquiry however did not. Mr Libby was indicted in October 2005, and Mr Rove, who admitted to talking to Mr Novak, was questioned five times before a grand jury. Various journalists were also forced to testify and one reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, was jailed for almost three months after she refused to do so.

Mr Rove was said yesterday to be "elated" by the outcome. But Democrats have been left as frustrated as a wild beast suddenly deprived of certain prey.

"This is probably good news for the White House, fumed Howard Dean, the party chairman, "but it's not very good news for America. If the President valued America more than he valued his connection to Karl Rove, Karl Rove would have been fired long ago."

In fact Mr Rove had been subtly demoted by the White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, when he took over in April. In the wake of Mr Bush's re-election in November 2004, he was made deputy chief of staff with wide-ranging policy responsibilities. But Mr Bolten removed those latter, instructing his deputy to devote his time exclusively to politics.

The main loose end of the inquiry is now the source who gave Ms Plame's name to the star Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward - according to Mr Woodward some weeks before it appeared in Mr Novak's column. However, like Ms Miller, Mr Woodward never actually wrote a story about her.