WASHINGTON—The White House refused Monday to repeat earlier assertions that any administration official who leaked classified information would be fired, days after Karl Rove, one of President Bush's top aides, was fingered as the source of a news leak that exposed a CIA undercover officer in 2003.
The White House stance came as a fast-growing legal and political controversy erupted around Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff, a longtime Bush friend and the architect of Bush's two presidential campaigns.
Recent news reports have identified Rove as the source of at least one leak to the news media in July 2003 that exposed undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Such a disclosure could be a felony. A special prosecutor is mounting an investigation into her exposure that appears to be reaching a head after more than 18 months.
Even if Rove didn't violate the law, proof that he disclosed Plame's identity could damage his effectiveness in public life and tarnish the president for tolerating it.
Democrats and allied liberal interest groups demanded Monday that Bush fire Rove. They also said the president owed the country an explanation of why he was allowing Rove to remain at a sensitive White House post while under suspicion of an act they labeled treasonous.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined several requests Monday to reiterate the administration's vows to punish anyone who leaked Plame's identity. He said the special prosecutor who was probing the leak had asked the White House not to comment while the investigation was under way.
Bush and McClellan repeatedly vowed after Plame's name was leaked that anyone in the administration who was caught leaking classified information would be punished.
"If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing," Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003, the day the Justice Department launched its inquiry.
McClellan went further a week later.
"If someone in this administration leaked classified information, they will no longer be a part of this administration, because that's not the way this White House operates. That's not the way this president expects people in his administration to conduct their business," he said on Oct. 7, 2003.
In December 2003, the Justice Department appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago to be an independent counsel to handle the case.
In June 2004, Bush was asked whether he'd still fire anyone who "leaked the agent's name." "Yes," he replied, "and that's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts."
Plame's identity was first disclosed in July 2003 by conservative columnist Robert Novak, quoting unnamed administration sources. The disclosure effectively ended her career as an undercover CIA officer after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush White House of distorting intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.
Rove didn't comment Monday. On the few occasions when he has talked, he's been very precise in his language.
"I'll repeat what I said ... when this whole thing broke some number of months ago. I didn't know her name. I didn't leak her name," he said last August.
His attorney told The Washington Post this week that Rove discussed Plame with a Time magazine reporter in July 2003, but never identified her by name. Newsweek published e-mails from the Time reporter about his conversation with Rove that reveal Rove identified Plame as a CIA officer, though not by name. Nevertheless, that was enough to shred her cloak of secrecy.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Rove's argument now "would seem to be a distinction without a difference," and pressed anew his standing request for an inquiry into the controversy by the House Government Reform Committee, of which he's the senior Democrat.
"The recent disclosures about Mr. Rove's actions have such serious implications that we can no longer responsibly ignore them," Waxman wrote. "The intentional disclosure of a covert CIA agent's identity would be an act of treason.
"If there were evidence of such a serious breach during the Clinton administration, there is no doubt that our committee would have immediately demanded that the deputy chief of staff testify at a hearing. This would have been the right course of action then, and it is the right course now."
Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., the committee's chairman, was traveling Monday, hadn't seen Waxman's letter and had no immediate comment, according to a committee spokesman.
Liberal groups weighed in as well. MoveOn PAC said Bush should fire Rove.
"In revealing the identity of a covert CIA agent, Rove either knowingly broke the law or committed an act of gross negligence. In either case he should resign or the president should fire him," said Tom Matzzie, MoveOn PAC's Washington director.
"Second, the president failed to act upon learning that his chief political adviser blew the cover of a CIA agent. These facts raise several questions to which the president owes the American people answers: What did he know? When did he know it? And why did he fail to act?"
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Karl Rove
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050711 ROVE bio
Need to map