WASHINGTON -- Political strategist Karl Rove, one of President Bush's most trusted aides, will not be charged in a federal probe of potential misconduct in the White House, ending a nearly three-year investigation.
The decision by federal prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald - announced yesterday by Rove's lawyer - is a huge boost for the Bush administration. It comes as Republicans are gearing up for a midterm election fight in November in which an indictment of Rove, the mastermind of many of the president's political victories, would have helped fuel Democrats' drive to take control of the House and Senate.
Robert D. Luskin, Rove's lawyer, said Fitzgerald, who is investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity, informed him of the decision Monday. "We believe that the special counsel's decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove's conduct," Luskin said in a statement.
Rove testified five times before a federal grand jury, most recently on April 26. Fitzgerald has been investigating whether Rove lied about his conversations with a reporter who wrote about CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Fitzgerald was appointed in December 2003 to investigate whether the identity of Plame, the wife of a Bush administration critic, was leaked to the news media in violation of a federal law protecting covert agents.
The decision brings down the curtain on one of the most closely watched political dramas in recent Washington history. The possibility that Rove might be indicted had become a Washington parlor game and fueled reports on the Internet that he was about to be charged.
"It's a chapter that has ended," Bush said on Air Force One as he returned from a surprise visit to Iraq. "Fitzgerald is a very thorough person."
The news was greeted with relief by Republican strategists, who said Rove would be central to helping Bush try to emerge from a long period of sagging approval ratings.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who had lunch with Rove yesterday, predicted that the political strategist would be energized. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Norquist said, "Nothing is quite so invigorating as to be shot at without effect. That's what happened to Karl. It is reasonable to assume that Karl Rove will be a more focused, aggressive and serious combatant having gone through this hazing."
Democrats said they did not view the decision as an exoneration of Rove, who had acknowledged that he spoke to two journalists in the days before they reported that Plame worked for the CIA.
"The prosecutor's decision not to indict Karl Rove does not diminish the fact that Karl Rove was involved in leaking the identity of an intelligence operative during a time of war," said Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman. "Karl Rove does not belong in the White House. If the president valued America more than he valued his connection with Karl Rove, Karl Rove would have been fired a long time ago."
Luskin said yesterday that he received a call and a letter from Fitzgerald on Monday in which the prosecutor said he would not seek charges against Rove. Luskin declined to make the correspondence public.
At the time, Rove was traveling in New Hampshire with his cell phone turned off, but Luskin said he sent Rove a message on his BlackBerry: "Fitzgerald Called. Case Over." Luskin said Rove called him back. "He was pleased and relieved," the attorney said.
The case is rooted in allegations that administration officials twisted pre-war intelligence about Iraq. Plame's husband, former envoy Joseph C. Wilson IV, was sent by the CIA to Niger in 2002 to evaluate a claim that Iraq was seeking uranium. He concluded that the claim was bogus, but Bush cited it in his 2003 State of the Union address. In a July 6, 2003, op-ed article in The New York Times, Wilson challenged the administration assessment.
Fitzgerald learned that the article provoked an immediate reaction from Cheney, Bush and other officials who sought to undercut Wilson.
Eight days later, syndicated columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's identity, citing two Bush administration sources. Days later, a report naming Plame appeared on Time magazine's Web site.
Rove and other White House officials denied in the early days of the investigation that they had played any role in outing Plame.
Wilson and Plame, who retired from the CIA last year, citing troubles stemming from having her cover blown, indicated through their lawyer yesterday that they were considering legal action against Rove and other administration officials.
"The day still may come when Mr. Rove and others are called to account in a court of law for their attacks on the Wilsons," said Christopher Wolf, the family's lawyer.
Rove's fate has been the principal unfinished business for Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor who made a name in terrorism cases before being named U.S. attorney in Chicago. In October, he secured the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, for lying about his conversations with reporters about Plame and for obstructing justice.
Libby, the only official charged, is to be tried in January.
Fitzgerald has been the target of criticism because he has not charged anyone with the crime he was appointed to investigate - the intentional disclosure of the identity of a covert agent. He has not publicly revealed the identity of the main source used by Novak to write his column.
Through a spokesman, Fitzgerald declined to comment yesterday on Rove or any other facet of the investigation, including whether he was continuing to pursue leads.
Rove had come under scrutiny over whether he concealed that he had spoken with a Time correspondent, Matthew Cooper, about Plame a few days before she was publicly identified. Cooper had used Rove as a source for the article he wrote about Plame for the magazine's Web site.
During a grand jury appearance in February 2004, Rove testified that he had not spoken with Cooper about Plame. But he changed his testimony eight months later, saying that his memory had been refreshed by an e-mail that his lawyer had dug up that referred to his conversation with Cooper.
Rove has said the lapse was an innocent oversight.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.