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For Bush, Effect of Investigation of C.I.A. Leak Case Is Uncertain
New York Times
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON, July 23 - His former secretary of state, most of his closest aides and a parade of other senior officials have testified to a grand jury. His political strategist has emerged as a central figure in the case, as has his vice president's chief of staff. His spokesman has taken a pounding for making public statements about the matter that now appear not to be accurate.
For all that, it is still not clear what the investigation into the leak of a C.I.A. operative's identity will mean for President Bush. So far the disclosures about the involvement of Karl Rove, among others, have not exacted any substantial political price from the administration. And nobody has suggested that the investigation directly implicates the president.
Yet Mr. Bush has yet to address some uncomfortable questions that he may not be able to evade indefinitely.
For starters, did Mr. Bush know in the fall of 2003, when he was telling the public that no one wanted to get to the bottom of the case more than he did, that Mr. Rove, his longtime strategist and senior adviser, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, had touched on the C.I.A. officer's identity in conversations with journalists before the officer's name became public? If not, when did they tell him, and what would the delay say in particular about his relationship with Mr. Rove, whose career and Mr. Bush's have been intertwined for decades?
Then there is the broader issue of whether Mr. Bush was aware of any effort by his aides to use the C.I.A. officer's identity to undermine the standing of her husband, a former diplomat who had publicly accused the administration of twisting its prewar intelligence about Iraq's nuclear program.
For the last several weeks, Mr. Bush and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, have declined to address the leak in any substantive way, citing the continuing federal criminal investigation.
But Democrats increasingly see an opportunity to raise questions about Mr. Bush's credibility, and to reopen a debate about whether the White House leveled with the nation about the urgency of going to war with Iraq. And even some Republicans say Mr. Bush cannot assume that he will escape from the investigation politically unscathed.
"Until all the facts come out, no one is really going to know who the fickle finger of fate points at," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.
The case centers on how the name of a C.I.A. operative came to be appear two years ago in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak, who identified her by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. The operative, who is more usually known as Valerie Wilson, is married to Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who had publicly accused the administration eight days before Mr. Novak's column of twisting some of the intelligence used to justify going to war with Iraq. Under some conditions, the disclosure of a covert intelligence agent's name can be a federal crime.
The special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has kept a tight curtain of secrecy around his investigation. But he spent more than an hour in the Oval Office on June 24, 2004, interviewing Mr. Bush about the case. Mr. Bush was not under oath, but he had his personal lawyer for the case, James E. Sharp, with him.
Neither the White House nor the Justice Department has said what Mr. Bush was asked about, but prosecutors do not lightly seek to put questions directly to any president, suggesting that there was some information that Mr. Fitzgerald felt he could get only from Mr. Bush.
Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington, said the lesson of recent history, for example in the Iran-contra case under President Ronald Reagan, is that presidents tend to know more than it might first appear about what is going on within the White House.
"My presumption in presidential politics is that the president always knows," Mr. Lichtman said. "But there are degrees of knowing. Reagan said, keep the contras together body and soul. Did he know exactly what Oliver North was doing? No, it doesn't mean he knew what every subordinate is doing."
Although it is possible that other officials will turn out to have played leading roles in the leak case, the subordinates whose actions would appear to be of most interest to Mr. Bush right now are Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby, who as Mr. Cheney's chief of staff had particular reason to protect the vice president.
According to accounts by various people involved in the case, Mr. Rove spoke in the days after Mr. Wilson went public with his criticism in July 2003 to both of the first two reporters to disclose that Mr. Wilson's wife worked for the C.I.A., Mr. Novak and Matthew Cooper of Time. Mr. Cooper has said he also spoke about the case with Mr. Libby.
By September 2003, as a criminal investigation was getting under way, Mr. McClellan was telling reporters that Mr. Rove had nothing to do with the leak, saying he had checked with Mr. Rove about the topic.
Around the same time, the president was saying he had no idea who might have been responsible. Asked by a reporter on Oct. 6, 2003, whether the leak was retaliation for Mr. Wilson's criticism, Mr. Bush replied: "I don't know who leaked the information, for starters. So it's hard for me to answer that question until I find out the truth."
Asked the next day if he was confident that the leakers would be found, Mr. Bush, alluding to the "two senior administration officials" cited by Mr. Novak as his sources, replied: "I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials. I don't have any idea. I'd like to. I want to know the truth."
Republicans said the relationship between Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove was so deep and complex that it was hard to imagine the president cutting ties with him barring an indictment.
"Can you survive being involved in something you probably shouldn't have been involved in where you didn't break any laws?" Mr. Fabrizio said. "Well, you probably can, especially if you are Karl."
Mr. Fabrizio said that even if Mr. Rove left the White House, he would continue to consult with Mr. Bush "unless they put him in a tunnel."
Mr. McClellan and other White House officials have repeatedly declined to answer when asked if Mr. Rove or Mr. Libby had told the president by October 2003 that they had alluded to Ms. Wilson's identity months earlier in their conversations with the journalists.
But Mr. Bush's political opponents say the president is in a box. In their view, either Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby kept the president in the dark about their actions, making them appear evasive at a time when Mr. Bush was demanding that his staff cooperate fully with the investigation, or Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby had told the president and he was not forthcoming in his public statements about his knowledge of their roles.
"We know that Karl Rove, through Scott McClellan, did not tell Americans the truth," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois and a former top aide in the Clinton White House. "What's important now is what Karl Rove told the president. Was it the truth, or was it what he told Scott McClellan?"
There is a third option, that neither Mr. Rove nor Mr. Libby considered their conversations with the journalists to have amounted to leaking or confirming the information about Ms. Wilson. In that case, they may have felt no need to inform the president, or they did inform him and he shared their view that they had done nothing wrong.
Mr. Bush has also yet to answer any questions publicly about what if anything he learned from aides about Mr. Wilson and Ms. Wilson in the days after Mr. Wilson leveled his criticism of the administration in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on July 6, 2003.