With the whiff of scandal in the air, President Bush faces a test of his leadership and his ability to address allegations of wrongdoing - and possible illegality - within his administration without the appearance of coverup.
The flap revolves around a charge that the White House leaked to reporters the name of a CIA operative, in possible violation of a 1982 law that makes such disclosures a federal offense in certain cases. The CIA agent in question is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a vocal critic of the administration's use of intelligence on Iraq. Mr. Wilson claims his wife was exposed to intimidate other potential critics.
The Justice Department has expanded its preliminary investigation into a full probe, while the White House, at press time, continued to reject the need for an internal investigation. Bush's press secretary says the president would fire anyone found responsible for the leak. Tuesday, the Justice Department was expected to send a letter to White House staff instructing employees to preserve materials that might be relevant to the investigation.
For a president who campaigned on his integrity and ability to run a clean, tight ship, the matter tests Bush's ability to maintain that image. "What you have to do, of course, is come clean and not cover up," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "When you're defensive, it just fans the flames of suspicion. The White House needs to ferret out who did this."
The issue has burst into the headlines at a politically sensitive time for Bush, as the US struggles in Iraq and the economy continues to lose jobs.
In addition, he faces criticism from the 10 Democrats who want his job and a frustrated Democratic minority on Capitol Hill looking for weak spots to probe. Top Democrats have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the matter, arguing a Justice Department investigation under Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Bush appointee, would carry the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Mr. Ashcroft has declined to appoint a special prosecutor; the law providing for appointment of independent counsels was allowed to expire in 1999 after the contentious tenure of Ken Starr, who conducted the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton.
At this point, some analysts say, the issue remains largely "inside the Beltway," somewhat arcane for the public, and therefore has not risen to a full-fledged scandal.
"So far they've handled it well," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He notes that the rebroadcast by CNN of a four-year-old comment by Bush's father, the former president and a former CIA director, calling those who name intelligence sources "the most insidious of traitors," leaves the administration no choice but to go through with an investigation.
Meanwhile, Professor Sabato adds, "the general electorate is going to focus on other issues. The public only cares about something like this when it freezes a president and makes it impossible for him to take needed actions. We're a long way from that - and I don't think we'll get there."
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, speaking Tuesday at a Monitor breakfast, cautioned that Democrats have better issues to use against the president than the flap over the leak.
"We have far stronger arguments in terms of the $87 billion going to Iraq and the state of the economy, and I hope that we don't get too much off of that since I think those are in the long run more damaging in Peoria than this," says Ms. Lake.
"The public probably is a little tentative about second-guessing the administration on this kind of action," she added, referring to the investigation into the leak.
And in the end, it remains questionable whether the identity of the leaker or leakers will be become known, since journalists fiercely protect their sources, under strong protection of the First Amendment. The information about Wilson's wife was first publicized in July by columnist Robert Novak, who cited two unnamed "senior administration officials" as sources. According to published reports, six journalists were contacted with the same information, but all except Mr. Novak declined to reveal it publicly.
Initially, Wilson had been quoted as saying that Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was somehow behind the leak. He said he had no evidence Rove was the original leaker but believed Rove condoned the leak. The White House denied that charge.
More recently, Wilson softened the allegation. "I have no particular information that leads me to conclude that Karl Rove leaked the information or authorized the leak," Wilson told NBC news Tuesday morning.
• Staff writers Liz Marlantes, Warren Richey, and David Cook contributed to this report.