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."
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), last year's Democratic presidential nominee, said in an e-mail to supporters: "It's perfectly clear that Rove -- the person at the center of the slash and burn, smear and divide tactics that have come to characterize the Bush Administration -- has to go."
McClellan demurred yesterday when asked several times whether Bush will stand by his pledge to fire anyone who leaked classified information. "This question is coming up in the context of this ongoing investigation," he said. "Our policy continues to be that we're not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation from this podium."
McClellan's previous denials of White House involvement over nearly two years also occurred when the matter was already under investigation. But he said yesterday that at some point after Fitzgerald's inquiry began, "those overseeing the investigation . . . said that it would be their preference that we not get into discussing it while it is ongoing."
In retrospect, it appears clear that many White House statements about the case were carefully constructed -- giving the impression of being general denials even as the words were narrowly focused on specific allegations. During briefings, McClellan repeatedly challenged reporters to provide him "specific information" when asking about Rove, and he frequently limited his answers about White House involvement in the case to mean the act of leaking classified information. On a few occasions, however, he offered broad denials about Rove and other top aides.
Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, acknowledged over the weekend that his client had discussed the subject -- without naming Plame -- with Cooper, one of the two reporters threatened with jail time for not cooperating with Fitzgerald. Cooper avoided jail last week after being granted a waiver by Rove to testify. New York Times reporter Judith Miller was sent to jail and remains there after refusing to testify.
Newsweek printed the contents of Cooper's July 2003 e-mail, in which he recounts to his bureau chief an interview with Rove that is typical of the cryptic exchanges that reporters often have with high-level officials on sensitive matters -- vague, but enough to help promote or squelch a story. Cooper said that the conversation was on "double super secret background" and that Rove gave him "a big warning not to get too far out on Wilson." It occurred as the White House engaged in a major damage-control effort after Wilson said there was no basis for saying Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons material in Africa.
Luskin said again yesterday that there is nothing inconsistent with what Cooper's e-mail said and what Rove has said throughout the inquiry, and he said his client continues to cooperate fully with Fitzgerald, including the prosecutor's request for Rove and his attorney not to publicly discuss the case.
"It puts Karl in a no-win position," Luskin said. "If he doesn't talk to [reporters], he subjects himself to criticisms like we're hearing from the Democrats on why he won't come forward and talk about his role. But if he does . . . he runs the risk of being accused of not cooperating with the investigation."
At a televised briefing yesterday reporters grilled McClellan repeatedly by quoting his own words back to him. "I'm well aware, like you, of what was previously said," he responded, "and I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time."