Tuesday, July 12, 2005

President Bush continues to have confidence in Karl Rove, the presidential adviser at the center of a press frenzy over the ongoing Justice Department investigation into a leak that divulged the name of a CIA officer, the White House said yesterday.

“Any individual who works here at the White House has the confidence of the president. They wouldn’t be working here at the White House if they didn’t have the president’s confidence,” Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Asked whether that included Mr. Rove, the spokesman said, “Yes.”

But for the second straight day, the White House refused to answer questions about the case, which is consuming Washington and has become the prime topic of the White House press secretary’s daily briefings. Mr. McClellan deflected questions yesterday, saying the matter is part of an “ongoing investigation.”

Mr. Bush ignored a question about Mr. Rove during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters in the Oval Office.

Democrats, for the second straight day, called for Mr. Rove’s ouster. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, both called on Mr. Bush to fire his longtime confidante and architect of the presidential campaign.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he didn’t know whether Mr. Rove deserved to be fired, but the president should make his adviser answer questions about the leak publicly in order to restore confidence in the White House.

The situation has evolved into a full-fledged scandal because the White House said two years ago that Mr. Rove was not involved in the leak. In June 2004, Mr. Bush pledged to dismiss anyone who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity.

According to a July 2003 e-mail that surfaced over the weekend, Mr. Rove told Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper that “the woman apparently works” for the CIA. It added that the woman had authorized a trip to Africa by her husband, career diplomat Joe Wilson, to check out accusations that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons.

Mr. Rove’s attorney, Robert Luskin, has said that his client has been told by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special Justice Department prosecutor leading the criminal case, that he is not the target of the investigation.

The law governing disclosure of an undercover agent’s identity has not been tested in court and sets difficult standards to meet prosecution requirements.

Joseph DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney, said he does not think Mr. Fitzgerald has a case for prosecution under the identities law.

“Nobody in this case is going to be prosecuted for a violation of that act,” Mr. DiGenova said. “It is quite clear from beginning that if a disclosure occurred, it was either an inadvertent disclosure or a disclosure that did not occur within the act.”

Conviction under the law carries a fine and a prison term of between five and 10 years. For the law to be triggered, the U.S. government must be taking “affirmative measures to conceal such covert intelligence agent’s intelligence relationship with the United States.”

Mrs. Plame was a “nonofficial covert” CIA officer, although U.S. intelligence officials say her identity was compromised twice before columnist Robert Novak identified her in a piece about Mr. Wilson.

Robert F. Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, said the law is ambiguous.

“Clearly, the purpose of the statute was to stop the Agees of the world,” Mr. Turner said, referring to Philip Agee a former CIA officer who published a newsletter identifying agents called Covert Action Information Bulletin.

After Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, was killed in 1975, Congress enacted the law.

Mr. Turner said the identity of Mrs. Plame in the Novak column appeared to be the reporter’s attempt to explain why Mr. Wilson was sent to Niger, not to reveal her role as an undercover CIA officer.

“It does not strike me as going to the core what this law was intended to prevent,” he said.

One U.S. official close to the probe said the prosecutor has not been able to find government officials who spoke with the press who were authorized to know that Mrs. Plame worked for CIA.

Instead, the prosecutor is working to find someone who might have obstructed justice or lied to investigators, the official said.

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