It was a question the White House press corps once believed unthinkable. Has President George W Bush lost confidence in his political guru, Karl Rove? If simply posing the question was a surprise last week, the answer - or, more accurately, the lack of one - was an even greater shock.
When Bush faced reporters at the White House last Wednesday, he dodged questions on Rove. Seated as ever, just behind his President, Rove himself was tight-lipped and pale. The Rove-Bush partnership has changed the face of American politics, propelling Bush from Texas to the White House. Not for nothing is Rove known as 'boy genius' to Republican friends and 'Bush's brain' to Democrat enemies. Now that is under threat.
To out a CIA operative for political reasons is just unbelievable. This hurts the intelligence community which is supposed to be protecting us. I hope Rove rots in hell.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent
The so-called 'Valerie Plame affair' has the Bush administration in a panic. An investigation into whether White House officials deliberately blew the cover of a CIA agent in an attempt to hit out at a critic of the Iraq war has Rove firmly in its sights.
The scandal has all the classic ingredients: an unmasked CIA agent - who just happens to be a glamorous blonde - and a tough-minded independent investigator. There are secret sources, leaked emails and even a reporter thrown in jail. The official White House spokesman, the normally unflappable Scott McClellan, has been caught making a grossly misleading statement. Newspapers are devoting page after page to the twists and turns of the case.
It is starting to have a familiar ring. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky. Does Bush have Plamegate? 'Bad things just happen in second terms,' said Larry Haas, a former Clinton aide. 'The Bush administration looks to the American people that it has lied.'
It all began two years ago with a column from conservative journalist Bob Novak at a time of intense debate over statements by Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who had researched claims for the CIA that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium in Niger. Wilson publicly accused the Bush administration of using the 'Niger issue' as part of a false justification for invading Iraq. Novak's column, citing two administration sources, said Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA. Such a leak could have had two aims. First, it would punish the Wilsons by blowing her cover and thus jeopardizing her career. Second, it would warn others doing CIA work not to speak out publicly against the White House.
'It actually worked. It was aimed at stopping the bleeding after Wilson spoke out and no one else did,' said Mel Goodman, a former top CIA analyst now at the Center for International Policy.
But it was also illegal. Deliberately exposing the identity of an undercover CIA agent is a serious crime. Whoever had spoken to Novak could face up to 10 years in jail. Not only was her career ended, but national security had been harmed. 'To out a CIA operative for political reasons is just unbelievable. This hurts the intelligence community which is supposed to be protecting us. I hope Rove rots in hell,' said Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent who is a former colleague of Plame's.
Bush reacted to the controversy by naming Patrick Fitzgerald as a special counsel to investigate the leaks. That temporarily defused the issue and allowed the 2004 election to be fought without the Plame affair overshadowing it. But instead, as Fitzgerald held secret hearings, the Plame affair became a ticking time bomb. So determined was Fitzgerald to build up an accurate picture of what happened that his inquiries have even led to the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was briefed on Plame's identity by a source but did not write a story about the affair.
But bit by bit a clearer picture has emerged and Rove has been caught in the act. A leaked e-mail last week from Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper said Rove told Cooper that 'Wilson's wife' worked at the CIA before Novak's column appeared. It is also believed that Novak has also told Fitzgerald that one of his two sources was Rove.
That has put Bush in an awkward position. He has previously promised to fire anyone revealed to be involved in the Plame leak, though the White House is now refusing to repeat that statement. McClellan is an even worse spot. He once told reporters that it was 'totally ridiculous' to suggest Rove had been involved.
Rove's only way out is a legal one. The law is clear that to be guilty one must knowingly expose the agent. It is possible Rove did not know Plame was undercover. The other issue is technical. Rove appeared not to refer to Plame by her name in conversation with Cooper, calling her only 'Wilson's wife'. With Novak it appears to be the journalist who asked about Plame's job - which Rove then confirmed - rather than the other way round.
If the legal case against Rove has holes in it, the political case is more damning. For the first time in years the Democrats can exploit a scandal that is easy to understand. While the details are confusing, the narrative is simple: the White House exposed a CIA agent working to protect America. 'People are angry. The press corps is angry. The Democrats just have to keep feeding the beast,' said Haas.
Rove has one huge advantage: Bush's loyalty. Few other presidents have been as loyal as Bush to top officials. And Rove has been with Bush since the beginning. 'If there's no evidence of illegality, I think he'll survive,' said Haas.
© Copyright 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited