By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006
President Bush yesterday reaffirmed his trust in White House strategist Karl Rove, and GOP allies said the longtime presidential adviser has no reason to apologize for his role in the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity three years ago.
"Along with others in the White House, I took a sigh of relief" when the news broke this week that Rove would not be charged in the CIA leak investigation, Bush told reporters in a Rose Garden news conference. "I trust Karl Rove." A senior White House official said Bush and his staff are eager to "put this behind us" as quickly as possible.
But while Rove appears out of legal jeopardy, partisans are already pressing a question that is likely to hound him and Bush for some time: Should Rove be held to account outside the legal system for his part in unmasking CIA officer Valerie Plame and initially telling the nation he was not involved?
The three-year investigation of the Plame leak did not result in criminal charges against Rove, but it did raise questions about his early denials. In 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he consulted Rove and was assured that the senior aide played no role in the leaking of Plame's name to the media. The White House left the clear impression that Rove knew nothing of the leak and certainly did not participate in it.
The subsequent federal investigation determined that Rove talked with at least two reporters about Plame before her identity was disclosed by columnist Robert D. Novak in July 2003, and that he relayed word of those conversations to other White House officials.
Republicans close to Rove argued yesterday that, technically speaking, the aide never lied about his role and that, if anything, he is owed an apology by the media and some Democrats. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, echoing an argument Rove has made privately to others, said Rove only discussed Plame briefly when questioned by reporters, never mentioned her name specifically and never intended to blow her cover.
"It is now clear he did not leak anybody's name and did not lie about any action," said Gillespie, a close Rove ally.
Democrats dismissed that defense.
"He leaked the name of an intelligence operative at a time of war," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean responded in an interview. "I don't know another president who would not fire someone like this."
Dean said Rove has survived only because Bush suffers from an "incredible blind spot for personal loyalty."
Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador whose criticism of Bush's use of prewar intelligence set in motion the White House campaign that eventually led to the unmasking of his wife, Plame, said Rove owes them and others an apology -- at the very least.
"There is contemporaneous evidence that Mr. Rove was the source of compromising Valerie's identity" to two reporters -- Novak and Time's Matthew Cooper, Wilson said. "Is that the conduct one should expect from a senior government servant?"
Wilson and Plame are considering a civil suit against Rove.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said it would be inappropriate to discuss the role of specific officials or whether any apologies are necessary until Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation is concluded.
"Why does not everybody wait to see what the facts are?" Snow said. At his news conference, Bush, too, said it would be wrong to comment on an ongoing case, despite his statements about it moments earlier and aboard Air Force One on Tuesday. As long as Bush sticks to this position, Democrats are likely to keep raising the issue.
Republicans close to the White House said Bush will not push Rove to apologize at any point and is confident the issue will soon fade from the public debate. For many Bush critics, that position contrasts with the ethical standards the president set as a candidate for president and in the earliest days of the leak probe.
In October 2000, Bush told supporters: "In my administration we will not ask only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves." Snow would not comment on whether Rove's role in the leak case met this standard.
After news of the leak case broke, Bush said he would "fire anyone" who leaked the name of a covert CIA operative.
But in July 2005, the president set a high threshold for dismissal to cover only those aides who "committed a crime." The timing and threshold change had the potential to benefit Rove. By then, it was clear Rove was involved in the disclosure of Plame's identity even if his actions did not break the law.
Rove yesterday referred questions to Mark Corallo, his spokesman for the leak case. Corallo said he could not comment because of the pending trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of lying to investigators in the leak probe. But Rove's view of the leak controversy was made clear by Gillespie and others who are close to the White House deputy chief of staff.
"He did nothing wrong, he was not involved, he did everything right and owes nobody any apology," said a source close to Rove, who would discuss the topic only if his name was not used. The source said Rove was technically correct when he told CNN in 2004 that "I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name."
Gillespie said that there was nothing misleading about McClellan's comments in 2003, when the spokesman denied any role for Rove, because it was commonly known the issue was whether the aide leaked the name of a covert CIA agent. But a transcript of McClellan's comments suggests differently.
McClellan was asked if Rove "told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?" Rove, he said, "assured me" he was not involved in the leak of such information.
It is true there is no known evidence that Rove leaked Plame's name per se; in one instance, he referred to Plame simply as Wilson's wife. But he confirmed her CIA role to two reporters, according to court filings in the Libby case.
"He did not have a role in leaking anything. In this town, leaking is a proactive action: Someone gets on the phone and calls reporters for a purpose," said the source close to Rove.