WASHINGTON - The White House is suddenly facing damaging evidence that it misled the public by insisting for two years that presidential adviser Karl Rove wasn't involved in leaking the identity of a female CIA officer.
President Bush, at an Oval Office photo opportunity Tuesday, was asked directly whether he would fire Rove - in keeping with a pledge in June, 2004, to dismiss any leakers in the case. The president did not respond.
For the second day, White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to answer questions about Rove.
Rove told Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper that the woman "apparently works" for the CIA and that she had authorized her husband's trip to Africa to assess allegations that Iraq was trying to obtain yellowcake uranium for nuclear weapons, 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 inside the Bush administration who revealed the name of Valerie Plame to the news media.
The revelation about Rove prompted Democratic calls for President Bush to follow through on his promise to fire leakers of Plame's identity, and triggered 61 questions during two press briefings Monday by McClellan.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Tuesday that "Karl Rove ought to be fired." With 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.
It was McClellan who provided the previous assurances about no role for Rove, but he refused to repeat those assurances Monday.
"Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" a reporter asked McClellan.
"This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation," McClellan replied.
McClellan gave the same answer when asked whether President Bush has confidence in Rove, the architect of the president's successful political campaigns.
The investigation was ongoing in 2003 when McClellan assured the public Rove wasn't involved, a reporter pointed out, but the spokesman refused to elaborate.
In September and October 2003, McClellan said he had spoken directly with Rove about the matter and that "he was not involved" in leaking Plame's identity to the news media. McClellan said at the time: "The president knows that Karl Rove wasn't involved," "It was a ridiculous suggestion" and "It's not true."
Rove's own public denials at the time and since have been more narrowly worded: "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name," Rove said last year.
Democrats pressed Bush to act.
"The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "I trust they will follow through on this pledge. If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security."
Democratic consultant Paul Begala, appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday, said Rove has both a legal problem and a political problem.
He said the legal issue should be resolved by the grand jury. Begala also said the White House has a political problem because "people are going to look at this crowd and say, Gee, we can't trust a thing they say after the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) controversy.' "
New York Times reporter Judith Miller is in jail for refusing to reveal who in the administration talked to her about Plame.
Cooper had also planned to go to jail rather than talk, but at the last minute he agreed to cooperate with investigators when a source, Rove, gave him permission to do so. Cooper's employer, Time Inc., also turned over Cooper's e-mail and notes.
One of the e-mails was a note from Cooper to his boss in which he said he had spoken to Rove, who described the wife of former U.S. Ambassador and Bush administration critic Joe Wilson as someone who "apparently works" at the CIA, Newsweek magazine reported.
It said "Wilson's wife" - not CIA Director George Tenet or Vice President Dick Cheney - authorized a trip by Wilson to Africa. The purpose was to check out reports that Iraq had tried to obtain yellowcake uranium for use in nuclear weapons.
Rove's conversation with Cooper took place five days after Plame's husband suggested in a New York Times op-ed piece that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq. Wilson's trip to Africa provided the basis for his criticism.
Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, said his client did not disclose Plame's name. Luskin declined to say how Rove found out that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and refused to say how Rove came across the information that it was Wilson's wife who authorized his trip to Africa.