Bush Aide Deflects Questions On Rove

By Mike Allen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

President Bush's aides put up a wall yesterday when questioned about revelations that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had discussed the role of CIA official Valerie Plame with a reporter despite past White House assertions that he was not involved in her unmasking.

Engulfed by questions at two combative briefings, White House press secretary Scott McClellan cited the continuing criminal investigation to say that he would not discuss conversations Rove had with a reporter about Plame before her name was published, or say whether Bush's pledge to fire anyone involved in leaking classified information still stands.

"No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the president of the United States," McClellan said, echoing his two-year-old position on the case. "And I think the way to be most helpful is to not get into commenting on it while it is an ongoing investigation."

Democrats, emboldened by having the White House on the defensive, began a campaign to pressure Rove to give up his security clearances, answer questions before Congress and even resign.

Whether a crime occurred remains the focus of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, but the latest revelations also leave White House credibility at stake, given past statements by the president, McClellan and others. Over the weekend, Newsweek reported that Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, in an internal e-mail from July 2003, cited Rove as saying that administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador, had gone to Niger on a fact-finding trip involving Iraq's nuclear weapons programs at the behest of his wife. At the same time, according to Cooper's account, Rove also noted that she worked for the CIA on issues of weapons of mass destruction.

The e-mail did not say that Rove identified Plame by name, and Rove has maintained from the beginning that he neither knew her name nor leaked it to anyone. Columnist Robert D. Novak first reported Plame's identity in July 2003. The law says that for a violation to occur, a government official must have deliberately identified a covert agent, and must have known that the agent was under cover and that the government was trying to keep the agent's identity secret. It was the issue of credibility, more than of criminal culpability, that produced some of the most aggressive questioning at a White House briefing in recent memory -- but no answers.

Asked about the matter on nine occasions over the years, Bush has said he welcomed the investigation, called the name disclosure "a very serious matter," and declared that the sooner investigators "find out the truth, the better, as far as I'm concerned."

"I want to know the truth," Bush told reporters in September 2003 after news of the investigation had burst into headlines. "If anybody has got any information, inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business."

In 2003, McClellan said it was "a ridiculous suggestion" that Rove was involved. "I've made it very clear, he was not involved, that there's no truth to the suggestion that he was," he said. He also said that any culprit in the White House should be fired "at a minimum."

At one point, McClellan vowed: "The president has set high standards, the highest of standards, for people in his administration. He's made it very clear to people in his administration that he expects them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

Bush replied "yes" when asked in June 2004 if he would fire anyone who leaked the agent's name.

Democrats seized on that statement yesterday, urging Bush to follow through by dismissing Rove and including a call for congressional hearings. Among the flurry of critical statements was one from Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who said the leak must be treated as a breach of national security. "The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration," he said. "I trust they will follow through on this pledge. If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security."

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