President Bush today appeared to raise the threshold for firing any White House official who leaked the identity of a covert CIA agent, saying he would dismiss anyone who "committed a crime" in the case.
In a White House press briefing after a meeting with the visiting Indian prime minister, Bush stuck to his insistence on waiting until an investigation is complete before substantively commenting on the case of Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked in July 2003. Plame was identified as a CIA agent working on weapons of mass destruction issues and the wife of an administration critic, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, in a column by syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who cited "two senior administration officials."
As an investigation by a special prosecutor has continued, a lawyer for Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove has acknowledged that Rove told a Time magazine reporter that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. But the attorney has insisted that Rove, one of Bush's top advisers and a chief political strategist, did not mention Plame by name.
Asked whether he still intends to fire anyone involved in the leak case "regardless of whether a crime was committed" and whether he was displeased that Rove told a reporter that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, Bush said: "We have a serious ongoing investigation here. And it's being played out in the press. And 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."
Bush added, "I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know the facts. And if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
The president did not mention Rove in his answer or address the question of whether he was displeased with him. Also left unspecified was whether an indictment in the case would trigger the firing of an official, or whether that would require a conviction.
A White House spokesman later cautioned against reading anything new into Bush's remarks.
Legal analysts have said that even though Rove may have spoken to reporters about Plame, it may be difficult to prove he violated a U.S. law that makes it a crime for an official to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent.
Bush has previously indicated that he would fire anyone who leaked Plame's identity.
In 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the suggestion that Rove was involved in the leak was "ridiculous."
McClellan said in a Sept. 29, 2003, briefing: "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."
In June 2004, Bush replied "yes" when asked if he would fire anyone who leaked the agent's name.
In other statements, Bush has pledged to "take the appropriate action" if anyone in his administration leaked classified information.
During a White House briefing today in which he was peppered with questions about the Plame case and Bush's remarks, McClellan disputed the view that the president had set a new, higher standard for dismissing someone over the leak.
"No, I disagree," McClellan said when a reporter asked why Bush added a "qualifier" -- committing a crime -- that had "never been part of his standard before" when addressing the issue. "I think that the president was stating what is obvious when it comes to people who work in the administration; that if someone commits a crime, they're not going to be working any longer in this administration," McClellan said.
The spokesman refused to try to reconcile his own past statements with what Bush said today.
"I know well what was said previously," McClellan said. "You heard from the president today. And I think that you should not read anything into it more than what the president said at this point. . . ."
McClellan also refused to say whether Bush considers leaking a crime, whether an official would have to be indicted or convicted to be dismissed, or whether the administration has any "regret" about the leak's impact on the Wilson family.
Bush's comments today came during a joint appearance with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Bush said that among the topics he discussed with Singh were counterterrorism measures and increased cooperation on nuclear energy for civilian purposes.
"Cleaner energy resources, including nuclear power, are vital for the future of both our economies," Bush said. "We have begun a bilateral energy dialogue to find ways to work together in this important area."
Singh said Bush has accepted his invitation to visit India at the earliest opportunity, and he praised Bush's leadership "in meeting the challenges of international terrorism."
The Indian prime minister said, "There can be no cause that justifies the killing of innocent and defenseless civilians. There must be an international norm of zero tolerance for terrorists."
Singh also made a pitch at the briefing for Indian permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council, saying his country has a "compelling case" and "can significantly contribute to U.N. decision-making and capabilities."
Singh said that in their talks, "the president and I were of one mind that the contemporary reality must be fully reflected in the central organs and decision-making processes of the U.N."
Bush did not mention India's aspiration for permanent Security Council membership in his remarks at the briefing.