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Bush Raises Threshold for Firing Aides In Leak Probe

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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 that a White House phone log turned over to prosecutors showed that Novak telephoned Fleischer on July 7, 2003, a day after Wilson alleged that Bush hyped intelligence about Iraq. Fleischer has told prosecutors he did not return the columnist's call, the source said.

Aides did not dispute that Bush appeared to raise the bar yesterday for what it would take for him to fire people involved the leak.

In June 2004, Bush was asked if he would "fire anyone found to" have leaked the agent's name. "Yes," he replied. Some Republican officials pointed to other quotations to dispute that Bush had changed his view, notably on Oct. 6, 2003, when he said: "This is a serious charge, by the way. We're talking about a criminal action."

Victoria Toensing, a lawyer and longtime Republican who helped write the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, which is at the center of this case, said Bush is now saying what he probably meant to say when the leak investigation was launched. "Of course you are going to be concerned if a law was broken," she said. "But what is it that somebody did wrong if they didn't break the law?"

A former Justice Department official who talks frequently to people involved in the case said signs point to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald focusing on the aftermath of the leak rather than the disclosure.

"I think he made his decisions months ago that there wasn't a crime when the leak occurred," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now, he's looking at a coverup: perjury, obstruction of justice, false statements to an FBI agent."

A few discrepancies have emerged in public statements about the case, offering clues to potential contradictions being examined by the grand jury. Cooper wrote in his Time account of his grand jury appearance that "a surprising line of questioning had to do with, of all things, welfare reform." But Cooper wrote that he "can't find any record of talking about it with him on July 11, and I don't recall doing so." Rove has maintained that the conversation was initially about welfare reform, according to a lawyer familiar with his side of the story.

In the court of public opinion, the Bush administration is slipping. Only one in four people surveyed -- 25 percent -- said the White House is fully cooperating with the leak investigation, down from 47 percent in September, according to a new poll by ABC News.

Staff writer Carol Leonnig and polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.


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