News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Leak probe could damage Bush's straight-shooter image

By Mark Silva / Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON - In pursuit of the White House, George W. Bush first campaigned throughout Iowa with the same pledge he voiced at the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he was nominated for the presidency: "I will swear to uphold the honor and dignity of the office to which I have been elected."

Now, with his personal credibility already slipping in opinion polls and controversy swirling around his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, Bush finds himself uttering the promise that he delivered Monday in the East Room of the White House: "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

This appears to be a far looser ethical standard, Democratic critics were quick to point out on Monday, than the White House's original assertion that anyone "involved" in leaking the name of a covert CIA agent to the media two years ago would have no place in the Bush administration.

Since then, it has been revealed that not only Rove, but also Lewis Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, assisted Time magazine's Matt Cooper in his reporting about the CIA agent, according to Cooper's account of his testimony to a grand jury last week.

For an administration that takes pride in high standards of personal conduct, and for a president who came to office amid public frustration over the personal conduct of his predecessor, the newest twists of a federal investigation into who leaked the agent's identity could be taking a political toll.

Bill Clinton was elected more because of his perceived competence and empathy than any notion that his personal ethics were above reproach, analysts say. But Bush has made much of being a straight-shooter whose word is always good, so the image of his top aides parsing their language and contradicting themselves could undermine that.

"It's not actually the leak anymore, but the cover-up," said Kenneth Warren, professor of political science at St. Louis University. "It's hard to justify the very clear comments ... made that Karl Rove was not involved and Bush saying that anyone who leaked would be held accountable. Now they are stonewalling."

For a week, the president and his spokesman have maintained that they cannot comment about the investigation of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Chicago-based U.S. attorney who is probing leaks that led to columnist Robert Novak and then Time identifying Valerie Plame, wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent.

Rove told Cooper that the wife of Wilson, a Bush administration critic, worked at the CIA, but did not identify her by name or role, Cooper said he told the grand jury. Libby confirmed for Cooper that Wilson's wife worked at the agency.

Those stories followed Wilson's published criticism of administration claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase uranium in Africa, criticism that caused consternation at a White House then making its case for Hussein's overthrow.

The White House, once adamant that Rove played no role in those stories apparently aimed at discrediting Wilson, now refuses to comment.

"We have a serious ongoing investigation here," Bush said Monday when pressed about the matter in an East Room appearance. "I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions.

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

That sounded like a step back from assertions made in 2003 by White House spokesman Scott McClellan that Rove had no involvement in identifying Plame. McClellan also said then that Bush had "made it very clear to people in his administration that he expects them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

But following Bush's remarks on Monday, McClellan said, "I would not read into it any more than what the president said ... It's best at this point that we just let the investigation continue."

Democrats, who have been calling for Rove's resignation or suspension of his security clearance, had another reading on Bush's new rules for judging Rove's responsibility in the matter.

"I am disappointed that the president seems to have changed his standard," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The standard for holding a high position in the White House should not simply be that you didn't break the law."

Bush launched his first bid for the White House with a direct appeal to the sensibilities of voters who had been offended by Clinton's ethical lapses in his relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and his initial insistence that he had never had sexual relations with Lewinsky.

Across Iowa, and in appearances throughout his early campaign, supporters cheered as Bush uttered a promise that he repeated at his party's convention in Philadelphia, saying that "the president himself must be responsible ... and uphold the honor and dignity of the office."

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, viewed the campaign firsthand.

"In the first place, the campaign in 2000 was a campaign ... against Clinton's personal moral failings and scandals," he said.

And Goldford was watching last week as Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman went on a television news program in Des Moines, Iowa, with his argument that Democrats are attempting to smear Bush with the Rove affair.

"It's more of a PR problem for Bush right now," Goldford said. "But none of this, of course, implicates Bush personally. It's his subordinates ... If push comes to shove, you throw the subordinate under the bus."

The president's political standing has slipped in recent months. The percentage of Americans who believe Bush is "honest and straightforward" declined to 41 percent in a survey taken July 8-11 by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal. That was down from 50 percent in January.

Gordon Fischer, a lawyer in Des Moines and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Bush campaigned as "a straight-shooter."

It will take a little time, Fischer suggested, to determine what price Bush pays politically.

"It will be very interesting this week to see whether it will be a topic of water cooler discussion," he said.


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