President Bush has ordered White House staff to attend mandatory briefings beginning next week on ethical behavior and the handling of classified material after the indictment last week of a senior administration official in the CIA leak probe.
According to a memo sent to aides yesterday, Bush expects all White House staff to adhere to the "spirit as well as the letter" of all ethics laws and rules. As a result, "the White House counsel's office will conduct a series of presentations next week that will provide refresher lectures on general ethics rules, including the rules of governing the protection of classified information," according to the memo, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post by a senior White House aide.
The mandatory ethics primer is the first step Bush plans to take in coming weeks in response to the CIA leak probe that led to the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, and which still threatens Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff. Libby was indicted last week in connection with the two-year investigation. He resigned when the indictment was announced and on Thursday pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to federal investigators and a grand jury about his conversations with reporters.
A senior aide said Bush decided to mandate the ethics course during private meetings last weekend with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and counsel Harriet Miers. Miers's office will conduct the ethics briefings.
The meetings come as Bush faces increasing pressure from Democrats to revoke a security clearance for Rove as punishment for Rove's role in unmasking to reporters a CIA operative whose husband was critical of the White House's prewar assessment of Iraq's weapons capabilities. The five-count indictment against Libby maintains that other government officials were aware of, if not involved in, leaking the identity of Valerie Plame to the media.
Bush's domestic woes followed him to a meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders in Argentina yesterday, where he sidestepped questions on whether Rove will keep his job.
Speaking to reporters before the official opening of the two-day Summit of the Americas, Bush refused to discuss Rove's future while the probe is ongoing.
"We're going through a very serious investigation," Bush said. "And I . . . have told you before that I'm not going to discuss the investigation until it's completed."
Bush also refused to address a question about whether he owes the American people an apology for his administration's assertions that Rove and Libby were not involved in leaking Plame's name, when it later became clear that they were.
Plame is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who became a vocal critic of the administration's rationale for invading Iraq.
"It's a serious investigation, and it's an important investigation. But it's not over yet," Bush said. "I think it's important for the American people to know that I understand my job is to set clear goals and deal with the problems we face."
The case has apparently helped erode public confidence in Bush's integrity. Among those responding to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 40 percent said they viewed the president as honest and trustworthy -- a drop of 13 percentage points in the past 18 months.
Half of those surveyed said they believed Rove did something wrong in the case, and about 6 in 10 said Rove should resign. But Bush attempted to wave away those findings yesterday.
"I understand that there is a preoccupation by polls by some," the president said. "The way you earn credibility with the American people is to declare an agenda that everybody can understand, an agenda that relates to their lives, and get the job done."
Some senior aides have privately discussed whether it is politically tenable for Rove to remain in the White House even if he is not charged. Others raised the possibility of Rove apologizing for his role, especially for telling White House spokesman Scott McClellan and Bush that he was not involved in the leak. McClellan relayed Rove's denial to the public.
A senior Bush aide said the "mandatory sessions on classified material is a result of a directive by the president in light of the [CIA] investigation."
Next week's meeting is for West Wing aides with security clearance, which allows them to view and discuss sensitive or classified material. Information about Plame was classified. Rove is among those aides who must attend.
"There will be no exceptions," the memo states.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report from Argentina.