Although he's the nation's chief executive, President George W. Bush apparently is going to have to wait for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to tell him about the involvement of key White House aides in the CIA-leak affair.
Bush told reporters earlier this week that he doesn't "know all the facts" but that he wants to.
Of course, he could invite Karl Rove to an Oval Office meeting where the president could say, "Karl, what happened?" Or he could ask I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, to come clean.
Both Rove and Libby have been publicly identified as sources of information about an undercover CIA officer. Fitzgerald is investigating whether they or anyone else in government violated the federal law that makes it a crime to out someone with that status.
But Bush says he'll wait until Fitzgerald completes his investigation -- now in its second year.
"I want to know all the facts," he said. "I would like this to end as quickly as possible. If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
Embedded in that expression of earnest righteousness was a subtle redefinition of what is a firing offense in this White House. Bush had indicated previously that anyone involved in leaking information about the identity of the undercover CIA officer would be terminated.
After it was revealed that Rove and Libby were involved, Bush changed the rule for unacceptable conduct. The new rule is that anyone who "committed a crime" would get pink-slipped.
There's still potential for additional wiggle room, if Bush needs it in the future. For example, if someone were convicted of a crime but appealed the verdict, the president could say: "If someone is convicted of a crime and the conviction is affirmed on appeal, they will no longer work in my administration."
If the conviction were affirmed on appeal, the convicted defendant then could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ah, the possibilities are rich.
The 1982 federal law barring the exposure of the identity of any CIA official working under official secrecy has some twists and turns that make it difficult to imagine Rove or Libby actually being prosecuted. But when Fitzgerald and a federal grand jury keep calling them in for more testimony or further interviews, it makes me think that questions of perjury or obstruction of justice are being explored.
This complex case goes back two years, when former ambassador Joe Wilson wrote an essay in the New York Times about his CIA-ordered mission to Niger. His assignment: Find out if Saddam Hussein had been trying to buy uranium ore from that African nation.
Wilson traveled to Niger and found no evidence that Saddam was uranium shopping.
When he revealed his findings in the New York Times, that was the signal for the White House to attack. We now know that Rove and Libby helped journalists find out that Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA officer.
That is the point of the Fitzgerald investigation: Did Rove or Libby or some other government official violate the law by disclosing the identity of Wilson's wife?
While we await the answer to that question, one casualty of this sordid episode has turned out to be White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
After confidently assuring reporters that no Bush staffers were responsible for the leak, McClellan has been hugely embarrassed by the revelations that Rove and Libby had leaked information about Wilson's wife.
McClellan's new gambit is to clam up on the basis that the matter is under investigation. Of course, it was also under investigation earlier when he felt free to proclaim the innocence of his colleagues.
Meantime, Bush has been setting up visual symbols of support for Rove, arranging to be seen with him in public so that photographers can capture the moment. The two men have a long and deep friendship and partnership. In addition to the political fallout, the Fitzgerald investigation must be personally painful for both of them.
Rove may survive this controversy, but his public reputation will suffer.
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