Two years ago, after reading a Bob Novak column, I called former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and asked, half-jokingly, “Why didn’t you tell me your wife was in the CIA?” In a somber voice, Wilson said, “I can’t tell you that now.” When I first read that Novak column outing Valerie Wilson (a k a Valerie Plame) as a CIA officer and citing “two senior administration officials,” I didn’t immediately comprehend the leak’s seriousness. But as I spoke with Wilson, I could see the potential harm. And I realized the leak was no accident. At the time, the White House and its allies were mounting a fierce campaign against Wilson, who had revealed in a New York Times op-ed that on a 2002 CIA-sponsored trip to Niger he had gathered information undermining one of George W. Bush’s justifications for the Iraq War: that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Africa. And as we discussed the Novak leak–that is, talked around it–it occurred to me that the leakers might have violated an obscure law that prohibits government officials (not journalists) from knowingly disclosing the identity of an intelligence officer. I mentioned this to Wilson; he was unfamiliar with the law. I said I might write about the leak and this law. He didn’t encourage me. He was hoping that somehow this story might blow over and was not eager to draw more attention to it. He was in partial (though understandable) denial. Two days later I posted a piece that first raised the question of whether this leak was evidence that White House officials had committed a crime.

Initially few in the mainstream media cared about the leak. But liberal bloggers and other Internet denizens howled. A handful of Democratic Congress members complained. Two months later, the news broke that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak, and there was a flurry of media coverage. Then the story receded, as the investigation generated little news (i.e., few leaks). But through the early stages, the White House claimed Bush wanted to get to “the bottom of it”; that leakers would be punished; and that Karl Rove, Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Elliott Abrams–three White House officials linked to the leak by Washington’s rumor mill–had not been involved. Next the case came to be dominated by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s zealous pursuit of reporters–particularly Time‘s Matt Cooper and the New York Times‘s Judith Miller. But now that the Cooper and Miller cases have been resolved–with Miller imprisoned–and evidence implicating Rove has emerged, the focus has returned to the original sin: the leak itself.

Because of Fitzgerald’s (appropriate or inappropriate) hounding of Cooper–which led to Time‘s surrendering Cooper’s e-mail and notes–Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff was able to obtain a damning e-mail that Cooper wrote three days before Novak’s column appeared. That e-mail noted that Cooper had spoken to Rove on “double super secret background” and that Rove had told him that Wilson’s “wife…apparently works at the agency on wmd issues.” This was the first documentary evidence that Rove had been involved in the leak. His lawyer’s immediate spin was that Rove had not mentioned Valerie Wilson/Plame by name. (This was a thin defense; a Google search would have yielded her name.) The White House stonewalled, absurdly refusing to answer any questions about Rove or its previous statements on Rove and the leak. Angry White House reporters accused the White House of having misled the public.

It has taken a while, but the leak has finally led to a flood of trouble, and Bush’s most important aide is in peril. Rove might escape legal jeopardy, given how the relevant law is written. But if that famous e-mail contradicts what he told Fitzgerald’s grand jury, he should fear a perjury charge. The issue, though, is not only whether Rove engaged in criminal behavior. It’s also what the White House will do about Rove–and others involved in the leak. (Novak did say he had two sources.) The Cooper e-mail proves that Rove leaked national security information to undermine a critic. (And if Rove didn’t know Valerie Wilson was under cover, he leaked without checking, which means he handled secret information recklessly.) By the White House’s earlier statements, Rove engaged in wrongdoing that warrants dismissal–regardless of how Fitzgerald’s investigation ends. And if Bush was sincere when he called for the leakers to “come forward and speak out,” shouldn’t he order Rove to tell us all he knows? But Team Bush has hunkered down, ignoring press inquiries, deriding Democratic criticism as baseless partisan attacks and hoping this storm will pass. It is refusing to acknowledge the reality revealed by that e-mail. But the White House–at least, Rove–has always known what happened. Bush needed no special prosecutor to “get to the bottom” of this. He only had to ask his own people to tell him the truth. That is, if he didn’t already know.

For updates, read “Capital Games.”