WASHINGTON—President Bush on Monday narrowed the circumstances under which he would fire subordinates who leaked the identity of a covert CIA officer to journalists in 2003, saying it would have to be a crime.
Bush's comment marked a retreat from an earlier pledge to dismiss any aide who was found to have been involved in exposing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
He spoke a day after Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper said he first learned that Plame was a CIA officer in a telephone conversation with Karl Rove, Bush's trusted political operative and close friend.
A special prosecutor is directing a federal grand-jury investigation into whether the leak of Plame's identity violated U.S. law.
Plame is married to Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who has charged that White House officials exposed his wife's identity to jeopardize her career in retaliation for his public accusation that the administration manipulated intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify the war.
Rove's involvement has ignited a controversy in Washington, with Democrats calling for his dismissal and Republicans saying he did nothing wrong.
An ABC News poll released Monday said that 25 percent of Americans think the White House is fully cooperating in the federal investigation, down from 47 percent when the probe began in September 2003. Three-quarters of the 1,008 adults who were surveyed from Wednesday through Sunday said Rove should be fired if he's found to have leaked classified information.
At a White House news conference Monday with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Bush lamented that the case was being "played out in the press," and added, "I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete."
"I don't know all the facts, and I want to know all the facts. The best place for the facts to be done is by someone who is spending time investigating it," he continued. "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."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, facing a barrage of questions, later said the president had maintained a consistent stance on the matter.
"I think that the president was stating what is obvious when it comes to people who work in the administration," he said.
But Bush's comment marked a shift from a June 2004 news conference at which he pledged to fire any subordinate who was involved in disclosing Plame's identity.
Moreover, the Bush administration has denied repeatedly that anyone at the White House was involved in leaking Plame's identity to syndicated columnist Robert Novak, Cooper and other journalists in 2003.
Novak was the first to identify Plame publicly. He wrote in a July 2003 column that he learned who she was from two senior administration officials.
A senior Democratic congressman contended Monday that Bush was obligated to take action against Rove without waiting for the outcome of the grand-jury probe.
Under an executive order that Bush signed in March 2003, "the president may not wait until criminal intent and liability are proved by a prosecutor," Rep. Henry Waxman of California wrote in a letter to the president that the congressman's office made public.
Executive Order 13292, which governs the declassification of government secrets, requires that "appropriate and prompt corrective" administrative action be taken against any U.S. government official who "knowingly, willfully or negligently" discloses classified information. The administrative action ranges from suspension without pay to job termination.
The disclosure would be a crime only if a person intentionally identified a covert officer.
A White House spokesman declined to respond to questions about the executive order.
Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy with the Federation of American Scientists, said the executive order "clearly defines a standard and expectation that unauthorized disclosures of classified information will be punished."
In a first-person narrative published in Time on Sunday, Cooper outlined testimony that he provided to the grand jury after receiving releases from confidentiality agreements from Rove and Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Cooper said that in a conversation on July 11, 2003, Rove didn't mention Plame by name. But the reporter said Rove told him that Wilson's wife was responsible for sending the former ambassador to Niger on behalf of the CIA to look into an allegation that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium ore from the central African country. A Senate Intelligence Committee report said Plame suggested her husband, but her superiors made the decision to send him.
Wilson concluded that he couldn't substantiate the allegation, which turned out to have been based on forged documents.
Rove "did ... clearly indicate that she (Plame) worked at the `agency,'" Washington parlance for the CIA, Cooper wrote, adding that it was the first time he learned Plame's identity.
Cooper said he and Libby also discussed Plame.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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