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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Bush Responds to Questioning Over Leak Case - New York Times

Bush Responds to Questioning Over Leak Case - New York Times The New York Times
July 19, 2005
Bush Responds to Questioning Over Leak Case
By DAVID E. SANGER and RICHARD W. STEVENSON

WASHINGTON, July 18 - Faced with growing questions about the role of his close adviser Karl Rove in the C.I.A. leak case, President Bush said on Monday that he would fire any member of his staff who "committed a crime."

These were Mr. Bush's first comments about Mr. Rove since he emerged within the last several days as a critical source for two reporters who wrote about the identity of a C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson. She is the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who publicly questioned the evidence behind Mr. Bush's accusation in the 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium in Africa.

The president's answer to a question at a news conference on Monday, however brief, articulated a standard for keeping or dismissing members of his staff that appeared to differ from some past statements made both by him and by the White House spokesman.

At one point last year, Mr. Bush said yes when asked whether anyone involved in leaking such information about a C.I.A. officer would be dismissed. Another time, in 2003, he said that anyone who had violated the law against such leaks would be "taken care of."

As the revelations about Mr. Rove's role in talking to the reporters have engulfed the White House in the last week, officials there had adopted the stance that they cannot comment at all because of the grand jury investigation under way by a special counsel into whether someone illegally leaked the name of Ms. Wilson, identified in some articles as Valerie Plame, her maiden name, and possibly into whether perjury or obstruction of justice occurred during the inquiry.

Mr. Rove's advocates, including Republican Party leaders, have argued that there is no evidence he identified Ms. Wilson by name or knew she was a covert officer. They say he committed no crime when he spoke to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Robert D. Novak, a syndicated columnist.

A federal grand jury is investigating those conversations and is believed to be focusing on whether, in talking to reporters, any White House officials violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. So far the grand jury has handed up no indictments, and Mr. Rove's lawyer has said he has received assurances from the prosecutor that Mr. Rove is not a "target" of the investigation.

But until Mr. Bush spoke on Monday, it was unclear whether the president would wait for final legal judgments to decide whether to take action against any member of his administration involved in the leak, or apply some different standard, as the government often does in deciding whether to keep or dismiss both political appointees and members of the Civil Service.

At a brief White House news conference with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Mr. Bush looked mildly annoyed when asked by a reporter, "Do you still intend to fire anyone found to be involved in the C.I.A. leak case?" Mr. Bush urged patience until the investigation was over, saying he, too, wanted to learn the facts. Then he added, "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, insisted in a subsequent exchange with reporters that Mr. Bush had not set a higher bar for firing someone in the case. Asked if Mr. Bush was now adding new conditions to the definition of what would be considered a fireable offense, Mr. McClellan said, "No, I disagree."

"I think that you should not read anything into it more than what the president said at this point," he said.

White House statements on this issue, dating back over the two years of the Wilson case, have varied. On Sept. 30, 2003, Mr. Bush used language akin of what he said on Monday. "If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is," he said then. "And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."

At other moments, though, Mr. Bush's language has been less precise. In Sea Island, Ga. in June 2004, Mr. Bush was asked whether he would fire anyone who was involved in leaking Ms. Wilson's name - which might or might not violate the law, depending on the circumstances. Without hesitation, Mr. Bush said yes.

Democrats insisted on Monday that Mr. Bush had shifted his stance, accusing him of giving himself wiggle room to accommodate Mr. Rove's actions. If Mr. Rove did not mention Ms. Wilson by name, but simply said, when asked by reporters, that he had heard the same description of her, that perhaps would not constitute a crime.

Democrats asserted that there were other lines to be drawn.

"The standard for holding a high position in the White House should not simply be that you didn't break the law," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

Mr. Bush's own knowledge of the facts remains unknown. The president has never publicly addressed the question of whether Mr. Rove ever told him of his conversations with Mr. Cooper or Mr. Novak, though he speaks with his top adviser constantly.

Mr. Novak has never discussed his sources, but a person briefed on details of the case said last week that Mr. Rove had told investigators that Mr. Novak had come to him already knowing the facts. Mr. Rove apparently indicated he had heard similar accounts.

Mr. Cooper, who testified before the grand jury last week, wrote in Time magazine that until his conversation with Mr. Rove, he had not been aware of Ms. Wilson's involvement in the case, including suggestions that she had played an instrumental role in having her husband appointed to undertake a mission to Niger and find out if Mr. Hussein had truly sought to purchase uranium in Africa.

The investigation also involves other possible sources of the leaks to Mr. Novak, Mr. Cooper, and Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times who is in jail for refusing to name her sources, though she never wrote an article on the subject.

One person who has been involved in the investigation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the prosecutor has discouraged public comments said that a phone log belonging to Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary for Mr. Bush until mid-July 2003, indicated he had received a phone call from Mr. Novak in the early afternoon of Monday, July 7, a day after the publication of an Op-Ed article by Mr. Wilson in The Times questioning Mr. Bush's assertions about the uranium.

But it is not clear whether Mr. Fleischer returned the call, or if he did, what he said. Details of the entry in the phone log appeared Monday morning in The Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Fleischer left that evening for Africa with Mr. Bush. He has declined to discuss this case, and in recent days has declined to identify any lawyer who represents him for comment about the investigation.

Mr. Bush's insistence on Monday that he would wait for a final legal verdict on his staff members seemed to set a standard of accountability for Mr. Rove that is different from the standards applied elsewhere in the government, some experts say.

Elaine D. Kaplan, who from 1998 to 2003 was head of the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates complaints of prohibited personnel practices, said: "Government employees and officials who are negligent with classified information can lose their jobs for carelessness. They don't have to be convicted of intentionally disseminating the information. Crime has never been the threshold. That's not the standard that applies to rank-and-file federal employees. They can be fired for misconduct well short of a crime."

Beth S. Slavet, a former chairwoman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that adjudicates federal employment cases, said: "The government can fire a Civil Service employee if it can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it would 'promote the efficiency of the service' to do so. The person does not have to be guilty of a crime. You can be dismissed because you didn't submit paperwork on time, you didn't follow instructions, you repeatedly showed up late for work or you yelled at supervisors and fellow workers."

Robert Pear contributed reporting for this article.

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