Bush Raises Threshold for Firing Aides In Leak Probe

By Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

President Bush said yesterday that he will fire anyone in the administration found to have committed a crime in the leaking of a CIA operative's name, creating a higher threshold than he did one year ago for holding aides accountable in the unmasking of Valerie Plame.

After originally saying anyone involved in leaking the name of the covert CIA operative would be fired, Bush told reporters: "If somebody committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

This is a small, but potentially very significant, distinction, because details that have emerged from the leak investigation over the past week show that Karl Rove, Bush's top political aide, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, discussed Plame with reporters before her name was revealed to the public. It is unclear whether either man committed a crime, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

Democrats pounced on Bush's comments to accuse him of trying to shield White House aides from future punishment.

"This is about the credibility of the president of the United States," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "He said he would fire anyone who was involved in leaking this sensitive information. Now, he's changing his tune."

Reid and other Democrats said that even if administration aides did not violate the law, they should lose their security clearances -- if not their jobs -- for trafficking in information about a CIA operative.

But Bush, speaking to reporters during a news conference with Indian Prine Minister Manmohan Singh, said, "It's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions."

Prosecutors are nearing the end of an inquiry into whether Rove, Libby or any other administration official broke the law. This is a difficult crime to prove because it must be shown that the person who leaked her name knew not only that Plame had covert status but also that the government was trying to conceal it.

Rove has admitted discussing Plame with two reporters but told the grand jury he was not aware at that time that she was covert, a lawyer familiar with his testimony said. Less is known about Libby's role, although he has cleared several reporters to discuss with prosecutors his conversations with them.

Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine reporter who testified before a grand jury last week about conversations with Rove and Libby about Plame, said that when he asked Libby if he knew Plame worked at the CIA, Libby said he heard that she did. Libby's attorney could not be reached to comment.

It is still not clear who was the original source of information about Plame, though prosecutors have asked several witnesses about a State Department memo that circulated inside the administration before Plame was unmasked by columnist Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003. The memo said Plame worked for the CIA and played a role in her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, being sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations it was selling nuclear materials to Iraq, according to people familiar with the document.

Wilson reported back that the allegations appeared unfounded. When he went public in 2003 with these conclusions, they challenged Bush's argument for going to war and set in motion a White House effort to discredit him. Federal prosecutors are trying to determine if the anti-Wilson campaign crossed the line by exposing Plame's identity.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company