WASHINGTON – Democrats, some White House reporters and assorted opponents of President Bush are demanding the ouster of Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (search) after the revelation that Rove discussed a CIA employee with a member of the press.
Denying that Rove has become a liability to Bush without actually speaking to the facts of the case, White House spokesman Scott McClellan (search) responded to reporters' questions Tuesday by saying Rove retains the confidence of the president.
"We're continuing to move forward in our agenda ... everybody who is working here is helping us to advance the agenda and that includes Karl, who is helping us in a very big way," McClellan said.
McClellan made his comments after being skewered by the White House press corps, with reporter after reporter trying to get him to say whether he was wrong when he declared a year-and-a-half ago that Rove had nothing to do with the leak.
"You're asking questions that are related to news reports about an ongoing continuing investigation and you have my response to that," McClellan said. "It's not the appropriate time to talk about those conversations when the investigation is continuing."
Bush, at an Oval Office photo opportunity Tuesday, was asked directly whether he would fire Rove — in keeping with his pledge in June 2004 to dismiss any leakers in the case. The president did not respond.
Click in the box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Carl Cameron.
Rove is on the hot seat after his lawyer, Robert Luskin, confirmed over the weekend that in July 2003 Rove spoke to Time magazine's Matt Cooper (search) about a trip former Ambassador Joe Wilson (search) took to the African nation of Niger. During his visit, Wilson investigated claims that Iraq was trying to buy yellowcake uranium, used for making nuclear weapons, from Niger. Wilson returned without such evidence, and subsequently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing the administration for manipulating intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq.
Wilson claimed that his trip was authorized by Vice President Dick Cheney and then-CIA Director George Tenet.
According to Luskin, Rove told Cooper that Cheney and Tenet were not involved in planning Wilson's trip but that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame (search), "apparently works" at the CIA and had authorized her husband's trip to Africa, according to a July 11, 2003, e-mail by Cooper obtained by Newsweek magazine.
The e-mail is now in the hands of federal prosecutors who are hunting down the leakers who revealed Plame's name to the news media.
Rove's lawyer insists Rove did not know or disclose Plame's name at the time that she worked undercover. Such a disclosure is illegal.
"A fair-minded reading of Cooper's e-mail is that Rove was trying to discourage Time magazine from circulating false allegations about Cheney, not trying to encourage them by saying anything about Wilson or his wife." Luskin said.
Did a Crime Occur?
Under certain circumstances, the exposure of a covert government agent would violate the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (search), carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Robert Novak was the first columnist to reveal Plame's name in print. However, Novak did not out Plame as a "covert" agent but as a CIA "operative." According to a 2004 Vanity Fair article that profiled Wilson and Plame, Novak later said that nobody in the Bush administration "called me to leak this" and that "according to a confidential source at the C.I.A., Mrs. Wilson was an analyst, not a spy, not a covert operative, and not in charge of undercover operatives."
CIA sources say Plame was undercover as defined by the IIPA, though some others in the intelligence community have questioned how she could have fallen under the legal definition of "undercover officer" since she was on desk duty at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for such a long period of time, qualifying her as having "non-official cover" status.
It's not clear whether Rove knew whether Plame was undercover and deliberately revealed it, which would rise to the level of a crime. Regardless, some within the intelligence community say they believe some of Plame's contacts have been permanently compromised and may have been exposed to grave danger as a result of her name being released.
Former Justice Department attorney Lee Casey says Plame was not a covert agent and therefore, no crime was committed.
"The fact is, that this prosecution was started during the campaign, it is an artifact of the campaign and frankly, it ought to be ended," Casey told FOX News, adding that the state of mind of the so-called "leaker" must be known in order to charge one with a crime. "You [as a leaker] have to know, based on classified information, that the individual's identity is classified and the United States is taking affirmative measures to keep that secret. Working at Langley doesn't pass that case."
Jan Baran, former counsel to the Republican National Committee and former President Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, pointed out that a crime involves naming Plame, which Rove apparently did not do.
"I don't think [the public was] misled and ultimately, when all the facts are out, we're going to see that no one acted improperly," Baran said.
Former White House counsel Jack Quinn told FOX News that two issues surround Rove's discussing Plame to a reporter: one, whether Rove actually committed a crime, and two, whether the White House misled the American public about Rove's role even though a crime may not have been committed.
"It would be unfair to conclude that any crime has been committed — that's something that would be left to prosecutors," said Quinn, who worked in the Clinton administration.
But Quinn did note that Bush said he would deal with anyone involved in the matter, not necessarily just the leaker.
"That's quite a broader statement and I think right now Mr. Rove's credibility, Mr. McClellan's credibility ... until their credibility is sorted out, the president's credibility is really cast in their shadow," he said.
Quinn argued that Republicans would be screaming for hearings on the issue if the political roles were reversed and a Democrat lived in the White House.
"It's ridiculous to assert that if the shoe were on the other foot, the Republican majority wouldn't be investigating this thoroughly," he said.
When the leak investigation began, McClellan publicly denied allegations of Rove's involvement.
"I've said that it's not true and I have spoken with Karl Rove," McClellan said.
Early in the probe, President Bush said those responsible would be held accountable.
"If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is and if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of," Bush said in September 2003.
Dems: Rove Should Go
Bush did not use the word "fired" to describe the fate of the leaker, but some Democrats seem to expect that response.
“You have previously promised to fire anyone found to be leaking Valerie Plame’s identity, a standard of conduct I strongly admire. However, just yesterday Press Secretary McClellan refused to reiterate your standard of conduct. Standards of conduct mean little unless they are applied across the board and without prejudice," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter to Bush that was released Tuesday.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Tuesday that "Karl Rove ought to be fired." Joining Kerry on Capitol Hill was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a possible 2008 presidential contender, who indicated her agreement with Kerry's view.
"I'm nodding," she told reporters.
"If you believe Karl Rove wasn't involved in the beginning of this ... in getting a character assassination on Joe Wilson, then the tooth fairy will come tomorrow if you put a tooth under your pillow," said Democratic strategist Bob Beckel.
Former California congressman Vic Fazio noted that Rove is well-known as the Bush administration's enforcer and the mind behind many moves made by the White House.
"It is obvious that there are a lot of people who want the president to keep his word and to fire anyone who is involved in leaking this information," Fazio said.
RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman on Tuesday blasted Democrats for "taking their political cues from the far-left, MoveOn wing of the party."
"The bottom line is Karl Rove was discouraging a reporter from writing a false story based on a false premise and the Democrats are engaging in blatant partisan political attacks," Mehlman said in a statement.
Brad Blakeman, former deputy assistant to the president, said Rove did nothing different than any other official in any administration.
"Karl Rove did not leak. Karl Rove provided information … it was background information, it was off-the-record ... it happens every day … it was perfectly proper," Blakeman told FOX News.
FOXNews.com's Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.