Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said yesterday that he notified White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card after the Justice Department opened...

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said yesterday that he notified White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card after the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into who revealed a covert CIA officer’s identity, but waited 12 hours to tell anyone else in the executive mansion.

The White House did not respond to questions yesterday about whether Card passed that information to President Bush’s top political aide, Karl Rove, or anyone else, giving them advance notice to prepare for the investigation.

Gonzales was White House counsel on Sept. 29, 2003, when he got the first official word that the Justice Department had opened its inquiry. Earlier that day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan had said the leak was a serious matter that the Justice Department should pursue “to the fullest extent.” McClellan also said it was “ridiculous” to suggest that Rove was involved.

Despite repeated denials by the White House that Rove played a part in revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper recently said he first learned of her position during a discussion with Rove in July 2003.

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The case centers on the White House response in the days after July 6, 2003, when Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence on Iraq’s weapons arsenal to justify war.

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Wilson wrote that the government had sent him to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium there for a nuclear weapon, and that he had reported, before the war, that no proof had been found to support the claims.

Eight days after Wilson’s article appeared, Robert Novak published a syndicated column suggesting that the administration did not take Wilson’s findings seriously and noting that Plame was a CIA operative who had suggested him for the trip.

Gonzales said Justice Department lawyers notified him of the investigation around 8 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2003, and that he got permission from them to wait until the next morning to direct the White House staff to preserve any materials related to the case.

“We were advised, ‘Go ahead and notify the staff early in the morning, that would be OK,’ ” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “… Most of the staff had gone home. No one knew about the investigation.”

Gonzales said he immediately notified Card, then told Bush the next morning before notifying the White House staff.

Gonzales said he didn’t start his own internal investigation when he was White House counsel because he didn’t want to interfere with any possible criminal investigation. As attorney general, he has recused himself from the investigation.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., appearing on “Face the Nation,” questioned why Gonzales would not have notified the White House staff immediately by e-mail and suggested that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald pursue whether Card may have given anyone in the White House advance notice to prepare for a criminal investigation.

“The real question now is, who did the chief of staff speak to? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call Karl Rove? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call anybody else?” Biden asked.