Friday, July 15, 2005

The partisan fight over Karl Rove exploded onto the Senate floor yesterday, with Democrats trying to strip him of his security clearance and Republicans retaliating by trying to strip the chamber’s two top Democrats of theirs.

The moves, which came as amendments to a spending bill, both failed, but not before each side blamed the other for “juvenile” behavior and for poisoning a well of good feelings they said had existed in the past few weeks.

Some senators said the entire exercise was wrong.

“There might be a contest between which of these amendments is more poorly drafted,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, who voted against both amendments.

“We should not be doing this. This is exactly why the American public holds Congress in such low esteem right now,” said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who also opposed both.

Meanwhile, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, whose wife, Valerie Plame, and her identity as a cover CIA employee is the central issue, came to the Capitol to call for President Bush to fire Mr. Rove.

“I believe it is time for Karl Rove to go and time for this president to live up to his promises that anyone involved in this leak would be fired,” Mr. Wilson said during a press conference with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, steps away from the Senate floor.

Mr. Bush said in 2003 that he would fire whoever leaked the information about Mrs. Plame’s identity. Mr. Rove spoke to Time magazine’s Matt Cooper about Mr. Wilson’s wife, warning the reporter about Mr. Wilson’s false claim that he was sent to Niger by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Democrats have since called repeatedly for Mr. Rove to be fired or at least lose his security clearance as White House deputy chief of staff.

But Republicans said to wait for results from a special prosecutor who is investigating the case and could be considering charges of obstruction of justice or perjury.

A former CIA covert agent who supervised Mrs. Plame early in her career yesterday took issue with her identification as an “undercover agent,” saying that she worked for more than five years at the agency’s headquarters in Langley and that most of her neighbors and friends knew that she was a CIA employee.

“She made no bones about the fact that she was an agency employee and her husband was a diplomat,” Fred Rustmann, a covert agent from 1966 to 1990, told The Washington Times.

“Her neighbors knew this, her friends knew this, his friends knew this. A lot of blame could be put on to central cover staff and the agency because they weren’t minding the store here. … The agency never changed her cover status.”

Mr. Rustmann, who spent 20 of his 24 years in the agency under “nonofficial cover” — also known as a NOC, the same status as the wife of Mr. Wilson — also said that she worked under extremely light cover.

In addition, Mrs. Plame hadn’t been out as an NOC since 1997, when she returned from her last assignment, married Mr. Wilson and had twins, USA Today reported yesterday.

The distinction matters because a law that forbids disclosing the name of undercover CIA operatives applies to agents that had been on overseas assignment “within the last five years.”

“She was home for such a long time, she went to work every day at Langley, she was in an analytical type job, she was married to a high-profile diplomat with two kids,” Mr. Rustmann said. “Most people who knew Valerie and her husband, I think, would have thought that she was an overt CIA employee.”

Asked whether his wife had been compromised before the press leak, Mr. Wilson said, “I have no idea,” though he said that her work has had to change since the leaks.

“My wife’s status is that she is back at work, obviously in a different capacity, and she no longer has the cover that she once held,” he said.

One neighbor of the Wilsons, who live in the affluent Palisades community in Northwest, said that he “absolutely didn’t know” that Mrs. Plame was in the CIA.

“We understood her to work as an economist,” said David Tillotson, a 62-year old lawyer. He said he didn’t know that Mrs. Plame commuted to CIA headquarters, but added that “they wouldn’t be conducting an investigation if she hadn’t been covert.”

Democrats had been pressuring the White House to act all week, but yesterday decided to try to force the matter.

Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, along with Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and three other top Democrats, called for the end of security clearance for anyone “who discloses, or has disclosed, classified information, including the identity of a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, to a person not authorized to receive such information.”

“Even a child knows that if a person can’t keep a secret, you stop telling him secrets,” Mr. Schumer said.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, called Democrats’ amendment “purely a political amendment” and then submitted his own.

It would have stripped clearance from federal officeholders who make “reference to a classified Federal Bureau of Investigation report on the floor of the United States Senate, or any federal officeholder that makes a statement based on a FBI agent’s comments which is used as propaganda by terrorist organizations thereby putting our servicemen and women at risk.”

The former is a reference to Mr. Reid, who mentioned the FBI file of one of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees, and the latter is a reference to Mr. Durbin, whose comparison of U.S. interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi and Soviet regimes was cited in Middle Eastern press, including Al Jazeera.

Mr. Frist’s amendment failed 64-33, with 20 Republicans joining Democrats and one independent in voting against it, while Mr. Reid’s amendment failed on a party-line vote, 53-44.

President Bush yesterday gave his longtime confidant an unusual show of support, walking out side by side with Mr. Rove on the White House South Lawn as he headed to his helicopter to leave for a trip to Indiana.

The president almost always walks out alone, with his aides following behind.

Later in the day, about 100 protesters — chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Karl Rove has got to go” — picketed outside the White House while Mr. Bush was in Indiana.

The protesters were organized by the liberal group, which provided signs that read: “Stop the Cover-up: Fire Karl Rove.”

• Nathan Burchfiel contributed to this report.

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