WASHINGTON — President Bush said Monday that if anyone on his staff committed a crime in the CIA-leak case, that person will "no longer work in my administration." His statement represented a shift from a previous comment, when he said that he would fire anyone shown to have leaked information that exposed the identity of a CIA officer.
At the same time, Bush yet again sidestepped a question on the role of his top political adviser, Karl Rove, in the matter.
"We have a serious ongoing investigation here and it's being played out in the press," Bush said at an East Room news conference.
Bush, appearing with visiting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, spoke a day after Time magazine's Matthew Cooper said that a 2003 phone call with Rove was the first he heard about the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson apparently working for the CIA.
Bush said in June 2004 that he would fire anyone in his administration shown to have leaked information that exposed the identity of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. On Monday, however, he added the qualifier that it would have to be shown that a crime was committed.
Asked at a June 10, 2004 news conference if he stood by his pledge to fire anyone found to have leaked Plame's name, Bush answered, "Yes. And that's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts."
2003 phone call
Bush spoke a day after Time magazine's Matthew Cooper said that a 2003 phone call with Rove was the first he heard about the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson apparently working for the CIA.
A tempest has swirled around the leak of the CIA agent's name, apparently by Bush administration officials, in July 2003.
Some Democrats have called for Rove, whose title is deputy chief of staff, to be fired. They have suggested that he violated a 1982 federal law that prohibits the deliberate exposure of the name of a CIA agent.
“It's best people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. I don't know all the facts. I want to know all the facts," Bush said. "I would like this to end as quickly as possible. If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
Giving a first-person account of his role in a case that nearly landed him in jail, Cooper recalled that Rove told him, “I’ve already said too much” after revealing that the wife of the former ambassador apparently was with the CIA.
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Cooper speculated in the piece, released Sunday, that Rove could have been “worried about being indiscreet, or it could have meant he was late for a meeting or something else.”
“I don’t know, but that signoff has been in my memory for two years,” Cooper wrote. The White House and Rove’s lawyer have stressed that Rove never mentioned Valerie Plame, Wilson’s wife, by name.
At issue in a federal grand jury investigation into whether someone in the Bush administration violated a federal statute by publicly disclosing the identity of Plame as a CIA operative.
Cooper said the 2003 phone call with Rove was the first time he had heard anything about Wilson’s wife.
White House mum
The White House had insisted for nearly two years that neither Rove nor Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis Libby, had any connection with the leak of Plame’s name. For the last two weeks, however, it has steadfastly declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing probe led by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.
Writing an account of a conversation he had with Libby, Cooper said, “Libby replied, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that too’ or words to that effect” when he asked if Libby had heard anything about Wilson’s wife sending her husband to Africa to investigate the possible sale of uranium to Iraq for nuclear weapons.
As part of Fitzgerald’s criminal probe of the identity leak, Cooper testified about his conversation with Libby in a deposition at his lawyer’s office in August 2004. Libby, as Rove did this month, provided a specific waiver of confidentiality. In a grand jury appearance last Wednesday, Cooper gave his account of what Rove told him.
Cooper also said there may have been other government officials who were sources for his article. Time posted “A War on Wilson?” on its Web site on July 17, 2003.
Republicans try to calm the storm
In an effort to quell a chorus of calls to fire Rove, Republicans said Sunday that he first learned about Plame’s identity from the news media.
“The information exonerates and vindicates, it does not implicate” Rove, Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman said on NBC's "Meet the Press." “Folks involved in this, frankly, owe Karl Rove an apology.”
There were no takers.
The White House’s assurance in 2003 that Rove was not involved in the leak of the CIA officer’s identity “was a lie” and Rove’s credibility “is in shreds,” said John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
It is unclear whether a journalist first revealed the information to Rove, as Mehlman said.
A lawyer familiar with Rove’s grand jury testimony said Rove learned about the CIA officer either from the media or from someone in government who said the information came from a journalist. The lawyer spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the federal investigation is continuing.
Wilson: 'An outrageous abuse of power'
Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Wilson said, “I believe that using the West Wing of the White House to be engaged in a smear campaign is an outrageous abuse of power.”
The CIA sent Wilson to check out intelligence that the government of Niger had a deal for the sale of yellowcake uranium to Iraq. Wilson did not find that such a deal took place.
Five days before Cooper’s conversation with Rove, an op-ed piece by Wilson had appeared in The New York Times suggesting the Bush administration had manipulated pre-war intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the idea that Rove was involved in leaking information about Wilson’s wife was “ridiculous.”
“There’s no evidence that (Rove has) done anything criminally wrong,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS. He said the American people are taking the controversy “for what it is — politics.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.