Skip to main content

Bush appears to shift course on CIA leak

President vows to fire anyone who committed a crime

Bush speaks Monday at a joint news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.


White House
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Matthew Cooper

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush appeared to backtrack Monday from his 2004 pledge to fire anyone involved in leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"I think it's best if people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions," Bush said at a joint news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"I would like this to end as quickly as possible so we know the facts. And if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration," Bush said.

That appeared to differ from a response Bush gave in June 2004, when he was asked whether he stood by his promise to fire whoever was found to have leaked Plame's name. "Yes," Bush said at the time.

Democrats pounced on Monday's apparent shift.

"The president has moved the goal posts. Americans understand changing the rules of the game; they don't like it," said Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

"This apparently is now a whitewash. The president has to come clean on this issue."

Democrats contend Plame's identity was released by the White House to retaliate against her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, for a July 2003 article in The New York Times.

In the article, Wilson criticized Bush's inclusion in that year's State of the Union address of a claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa.

Wilson said he had been sent to Niger to investigate the claim and determined that any such transaction was unlikely to have occurred.

Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper said Sunday that Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, told him Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and that Lewis Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, confirmed that piece of information.

Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to determine whether the revelation of Plame's identity was a crime. Cooper testified before a grand jury last week in connection with the probe.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied in 2003 that either Rove or Libby had been involved in the leak.

McClellan spent another day being pelted with questions about the matter Monday, telling reporters again that Fitzgerald's probe should be allowed to run its course.

An ABC News poll on the leak found that only 25 percent of Americans say they believe the White House is fully cooperating with the investigation.

Three-quarters of those asked say Rove should be fired if he leaked classified information. The survey was taken between Wednesday and Sunday.

Jack Valenti, a former aide to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, said he would advise Bush to announce a nominee for the Supreme Court this week to "wipe the Karl Rove story off the front page."

In fact, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania met Monday evening with Bush at the White House, though the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee would not divulge what was discussed. He left accompanied by Rove.

Lanny Davis, former White House special counsel under President Clinton, told CNN the investigation ought to be allowed to conclude before anyone calls for resignations.

But, he said, Bush and Rove "need to step up to the line pretty soon" and apologize to Plame if any attempt was made to discredit her husband by leaking her name.

The Africa uranium claim

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment Monday about reports that a State Department memo named Plame as the CIA agent who recommended sending her husband to Niger.

The New York Times reported Saturday that prosecutors are looking into whether the memo tipped off White House officials to Plame's employment.

The controversy dates back to the furious debate over the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the claims that Baghdad was harboring a nuclear weapons program in violation of U.N. sanctions.

In his State of the Union address, with war looming, Bush said British intelligence had evidence Iraq had sought to obtain uranium in Africa.

Nearly three months after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Wilson disclosed he traveled to Niger in 2002 at the CIA's request to investigate the claim and reported back that it was unlikely.

The resulting controversy prompted the administration to back off the claim, though CIA Director George Tenet said Wilson's report had been inconclusive. Even so, the original allegation turned out to be bogus.

Eight days after Wilson's account appeared in The New York Times, syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak identified Plame as a CIA operative in a column, citing two senior administration officials.

The article suggested Plame was responsible for sending her husband to Niger.

A lawyer familiar with grand jury testimony in the case said Friday that Novak told Rove that Plame was a CIA agent, not the other way around. Novak declined to comment, citing a lawyer's advice.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said the issue was "so much bigger than Karl Rove."

"The underlying issue here is, whether or not Joe Wilson said things rightly or wrongly, he was right -- flat right -- that Niger was not selling yellowcake to Iraq, which was a justification for going to war," Biden said.

"This was all about whether or not those who had access to intelligence information in this administration used it appropriately, not just whether or not the agency was right."

He added, "Anybody who's ever made a mistake in this administration has never paid at all. Everyone who has been right in this administration has been fired."

Wilson called his wife's exposure an act of political retaliation that ended her career.

But some observers have questioned whether Plame, then assigned to Washington, met the definition of an undercover agent in the 1982 law that makes revealing the identity of an American spy a felony.

"The CIA would not have frivolously referred this to the Justice Department if they did not believe a possible crime had been committed," Wilson told CBS's "Face the Nation."

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines