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Democrats Hit Rove on Leak

Congressional Democrats on Monday raised the stakes in the battle over Karl Rove, the powerful White House deputy chief of staff, amid allegations that Rove may have leaked the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame as part of a campaign to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) released a statement Monday afternoon calling on President Bush to abide by his pledge to fire anyone in his administration found to be responsible for disclosing Plame’s name to reporters in response to comments by Wilson that were critical of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in early 2003.

“The White House promised if anyone was involved in the Valerie Plame affair, they would no longer be in this administration,” Reid said in his statement. “I trust they will follow through on this pledge. If these allegations are true, this rises above politics and is about our national security.”

While Reid did not mention Rove by name, other Democrats were less circumspect about the man whom they see as the personification of the hardball tactics employed by the Bush administration since it came to power in 2001.

At least 21 House Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, have signed on to a letter to Bush that urges the president to either ask for Rove’s resignation or to fire him outright over allegations that Rove was one of two “senior administration officials” to reveal Plame’s job to columnist Robert Novak or other reporters.

“Notwithstanding whether Mr. Rove intentionally violated the law in leaking information concerning former CIA operative Valerie Plame, we believe it is not tenable to maintain Mr. Rove as one of your most important advisors unless he is willing to explain his central role in using the power and authority of your Administration to disseminate information regarding Ms. Plame and to undermine her husband, Amb. Joseph Wilson,” the Democrats wrote to Bush in a letter scheduled to be sent to the White House later this week.

Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, told Newsweek last week that his client “never knowingly disclosed classified information” and that “he did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA,” although Luskin did confirm to the magazine that Rove had discussed Plame with Matt Cooper of Time Magazine prior to the publication of Novak’s column on July 14, 2003.

Cooper said in an e-mail to his editors, obtained by Newsweek, that “KR” said Wilson’s wife “apparently works” at the CIA.

Other top Bush administration officials have also come under scrutiny by Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor looking into the Plame leak, including Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s top aide, and Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council.

Wilson took part in a CIA-backed trip to the African nation of Niger to investigate rumors of uranium purchases by the government of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Wilson was not able to corroborate those reports, although Bush administration officials used the Niger claim as one of the reasons for invading Iraq. Plame, a CIA operative charged with overseeing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, was responsible for sending her husband to Niger.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the Government Reform Committee, wants hearings into whether Rove gave Plame’s name to the press in order to damage Wilson’s public credibility.

“The intentional disclosure of a covert CIA agent’s identity would be an act of treason,” Waxman wrote in a letter to Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) on Monday. Davis turned down two earlier requests by Waxman for hearings on the Plame affair.

Waxman continued: “If there were evidence of such a serious breach during the Clinton Administration, there is no doubt that our Committee would have immediately demanded that the Deputy Chief of Staff testify at a hearing. … For this reason, I am renewing my request that the Committee schedule an immediate hearing at which Mr. Rove is called to testify.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wants Bush to strip Rove of his security clearance. “The president should immediately suspend Karl Rove’s security clearances and shut him down by shutting him out of classified meetings or discussions,” Lautenberg said.

Personal disdain for Rove runs deep among Democrats on Capitol Hill, and while some party strategists are urging caution on calling for Rove’s ouster while Fitzgerald is still conducting his probe, others want a full-scale effort by their leadership to force him from office.

“Karl Rove has a reputation for stopping at nothing to punish those who disagree with him,” said a senior Senate Democratic staffer. “It’s hard to believe this is what the president’s closest adviser spends his time on when we’re a nation at war, facing record-high debts and more insecurity than ever on the home front. It’s a sad commentary on this White House.”

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, faced pointed questioning on Monday from reporters over statements that he had made declaring that Rove and several other senior Bush administration aides were not the source of the Plame leak.

As early as Sept. 16, 2003, McClellan denied that Rove had been the source of the Novak’s information, calling such comments “totally ridiculous.”

And on Oct. 10, 2003, McClellan said he had personally spoken to Rove, Lewis and Abrams about the Plame leak and that all three denied being Novak’s sources. “I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this,” McClellan said that day.

At Monday’s press briefing, McClellan refused to answer any questions relating to the Rove revelations.

“This is an ongoing criminal investigation and while that investigation is ongoing, the White House is not going to comment on it,” said McClellan.

Despite a flurry of questions from the assembled reporters, McClellan would not budge from that position, insisting that “no one wants to get to the bottom of this more than the president of the United States.”

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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