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A possible classic second-term Washington scandal in the making
San Francisco Chronicle


July 14, 2005

WASHINGTON - President Bush promised months ago to fire anyone from his administration who leaked the identity of a spy.

Yet no one expects Bush to fire Karl Rove anytime soon, short of a grand-jury indictment.

Czar of White House policy and message, mastermind behind Bush's winning campaigns for the Texas governorship and two presidential terms, architect of the "new Republican majority," Rove is nearly as central to Bush's presidency as Bush himself.

For Bush, Rove is "the next-most-important person, beyond his wife, in his life," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Bush is famously loyal to friends, and Rove is the closest of friends, going back to Bush's graduate-school days at Harvard. Admiring enemies call him "Bush's brain."

"Karl Rove is a combination of Svengali, Rasputin and the 'Man Behind the Curtain' in this administration," said Marshall Wittmann, senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Progressive Policy Institute, a former aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a member of Bush's father's administration.

"For this president, and for that matter, the Republican Party as a whole, Rove is the master policymaker and master strategist," Wittmann said. "It would be a crippling blow if he had to leave the administration, and that's why he will not leave short of an indictment."

The controversy over whether Rove disclosed the name of a covert CIA agent to a reporter has some of the ingredients of a classic second-term Washington scandal.

Whether it has all of them - and jeopardizes Bush's second term - awaits the outcome of a grand-jury investigation by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago appointed by Bush in 2001.

The hard-charging Fitzgerald was chosen by the Bush Justice Department in the heat of the 2004 presidential campaign to investigate a leak of the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador and adviser to Bush presidential opponent John Kerry, was asked in 2002 by the CIA to investigate intelligence reports that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Niger to build nuclear weapons. Wilson told the CIA the intelligence was false. Later, in July 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times going public with his findings and criticizing the administration's continued claims on the issue.

The leak occurred after the piece ran, and an e-mail Fitzgerald secured under threat of imprisonment from Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper revealed that he had talked with Rove about Plame. White House spokesman Scott McClellan had previously denied that Rove was involved in the leak.

Another reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times, who did not write a story about the case, is in jail for refusing to reveal her sources.

Bush stopped short Wednesday of a defense of Rove, telling reporters after a Cabinet meeting, with Rove sitting in the room, that he had "instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation. I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports."

"I will be more than happy to comment on this matter once the investigation is complete," Bush said.

Not surprisingly, Republicans dismissed the controversy as a teapot tempest of little concern beyond the Beltway, and Democrats called it a national security breach bordering on treason.

Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., opened his second fund-raising letter in as many days with, "I put it as plainly as possible: In the interests of national security, President Bush should fire Karl Rove."

Ironically, it may not be the law as much as Bush's promise that sets the standard for whether Rove should be fired.

Both sides widely acknowledge that the criminal legal standard on revealing a secret agent's identity is quite high, and it will be hard to pin such a crime on Rove.

But Bush gave a definitive "yes" answer on June 10, 2004, to a question about whether he would fire anyone who leaked a covert agent's name.

"I don't think it's some little summer squall," Thurber said. "It's serious enough to last because of what the president said months ago about firing the person who leaked the information. The president has set that standard by his own statement."

Republicans called the attacks "political sniping" and argued that the issue stirred little interest outside Washington.

The press is keenly interested because one of their own is in jail, Republicans argue, but other events will quickly eclipse the Rove story.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at chochhead(at)sfchronicle
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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