WASHINGTON - President Bush shifted his language yesterday about punishing any employee who may have leaked the identity of a CIA agent, indicating his new standard for firing someone is whether an actual crime was committed.
Mr. Bush once said that if anyone in his administration leaked classified information, "appropriate action" would be taken. Yesterday, in response to a question at a press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mr. Bush said, "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
The White House once said Mr. Bush's senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lawrence "Scooter" Libby, were not involved in leaking the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. She is the wife of a critic of the administration's rationale for going to war in Iraq. White House spokesman Scott McClellan had said anyone who was involved would be fired.
Now Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby have been identified as having discussed Ms. Plame with at least one reporter.
Asked if Mr. Bush has raised the bar for firing someone, Mr. McClellan said, "I think that you should not read anything into it more than what the President said at this point, and I think that's something you may be trying to do here."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) expressed dismay.
"Now the President has moved the goal post. This now is apparently a whitewash," he said.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean also voiced criticism.
"Faced with a question about whether or not he will keep his promise to fire those involved in leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent while we are at war, President Bush backed away from his initial pledge and lowered the ethics bar," he said.
The 1982 law that makes it a crime to identify CIA operatives is written so carefully that the government has prosecuted only one person - a CIA clerk in Ghana - under the law. It says someone who discloses the name of a CIA agent must do so "intentionally" and that the agent must be serving in a covert capacity. The law does not apply to casual conversations.
It is still unclear who was the original source of information about Ms. Plame, though prosecutors have asked several witnesses about a State Department memo that circulated inside the administration before Ms. Plame was unmasked by columnist Robert Novak on July 14, 2003. The memo said Ms. Plame worked for the CIA and played a role in her husband, Joseph Wilson, being sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations that country was selling nuclear materials to Iraq, according to people familiar with the memo.
Ari Fleischer, then the White House spokesman, was one of several people who prosecutors believe may have seen the memo. A source close to the case, confirming a report yesterday by Bloomberg News, said a White House phone log turned over to prosecutors showed that Mr. Novak telephoned Mr. Fleischer on July 7, 2003, a day after Mr. Wilson alleged the President hyped intelligence about Iraq. Mr. Fleischer has told prosecutors he did not return the columnist's call, the source said.
Mr. Wilson charges that the administration leaked the identity of his wife in retribution for a July 6, 2003, article he wrote attacking the rationale for going to war in Iraq. Mr. Wilson said that during a trip to Africa, he debunked the allegation that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium ore.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the leak, did not target Mr. Novak but did pursue the grand jury testimony of two other reporters, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine.
Ms. Miller, who wrote nothing about Ms. Plame, has been in jail since July 13 for refusing to testify about what her sources told her. Mr. Cooper testified last week after saying his source gave him permission.
Almost a year ago, Mr. Rove said that he "didn't know her [Ms. Plame's] name and didn't leak her name."
Mr. Cooper, who used Ms. Plame's name in an article, said that in his brief conversation with Mr. Rove in 2003, Mr. Rove didn't refer to her by name but as Mr. Wilson's wife.
Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, has said Mr. Rove has not been told he is the target of any investigation and that he has no criminal involvement in the controversy.
Mr. Fitzgerald has not given any indication on how much longer his investigation will take or what charges, if any, he intends to pursue or against whom he might seek them.
An ABC News poll released yesterday suggests the controversy is taking a toll on White House credibility. Three-fourths of those surveyed said anyone who leaked classified information should be fired, and 47 percent said the White House is not cooperating with the inquiry.
Mr. McClellan, who once said it was "ridiculous" to think Mr. Rove or Mr. Libby discussed Ms. Plame's CIA identity and said both men assured him they had not done so, now insists he will not comment because this is an "ongoing investigation."
Yesterday, Mr. Bush responded to a question about his confidence in Mr. Rove.
"I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. I will do so as well. I don't know all the facts, and I want to know all the facts. The best place for the facts to be done is by somebody who's spending time investigating it."
This report includes information from the Washington Post.
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