WASHINGTON (AP)_ For the better part of two years, the word coming out of the Bush White House was that presidential adviser Karl Rove had nothing to do with the leak of a female CIA officer's identity and that whoever did would be fired.
But Bush spokesman Scott McClellan wouldn't repeat those claims Monday in the face of Rove's own lawyer, Robert Luskin, acknowledging the political operative spoke to Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, one of the reporters who disclosed Valerie Plame's name.
McClellan repeatedly said he couldn't comment because the matter is under investigation. When it was pointed out he had commented previously even though the investigation was ongoing, he responded, "I've really said all I'm going to say on it."
Democrats jumped on the issue, calling for the administration to fire Rove, or at least to yank his security clearance. One Democrat pushed for Republicans to hold a congressional hearing in which Rove would testify.
"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."
The investigation into the 2003 leak had largely faded into the background until last week, when New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail rather than reveal who in the administration talked to her about Plame.
Cooper also had planned to go to jail rather than reveal his source but at the last minute 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.
Within days of the July 11, 2003, e-mail, Cooper's byline was on a Time article identifying Wilson's wife by name _ Valerie Plame. Her identity was first disclosed by columnist Robert Novak.
The e-mail did not say Rove had disclosed the name. but it made clear that Rove had discussed the issue.
That ran counter to what McClellan has been saying. For example, in September and October 2003, McClellan's comments about Rove included the following: "The president knows that Karl Rove wasn't involved," "It was a ridiculous suggestion," and, "It's not true."
Reporters seized on the subject Monday, pressing McClellan to either repeat the denials or explain why he can't now.
"I have said for quite some time that this is an ongoing investigation and we're not going to get into discussing it," McClellan replied.
Asked whether Rove committed a crime, McClellan said, "This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation."
McClellan gave the same answer when asked whether the president has confidence in Rove.
Rove declined to comment Monday and referred questions to his attorney. Last year, he said, "I didn't know her name and didn't leak her name."
The Rove disclosure was an embarrassment for a White House that prides itself on not leaking to reporters and has insisted that Rove was not involved in exposing Plame's identity.
The disclosure also left in doubt whether Bush would carry out his promise to fire anyone found to have leaked the CIA operative's identity. Rove is one of the president's closest confidants _ the man Bush has described as the architect of his re-election, and currently deputy White House chief of staff.
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 has since suggested his wife's name was leaked as retaliation.
The e-mail that Cooper wrote to his bureau chief said Wilson's wife 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. Wilson's subsequent public criticism of the administration was based on his findings during the trip that cast serious doubt on the allegation that Iraq had tried to obtain the material.
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.
Rove's lawyer says his client has done nothing wrong.
"In the conversation, Karl is warning Cooper not to get too far out in front of the story," Luskin said. "There were false allegations out there that Vice President Cheney sent Wilson to Niger and that Wilson had reported back to Cheney about his trip to Niger. Neither was true.
"A fair-minded reading of Cooper's e-mail is that Rove was trying to discourage Time magazine from circulating false allegations about Cheney, not trying to encourage them by saying anything about Wilson or his wife."
Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said it is "disturbing that this high ranking Bush adviser is not only still working in the White House, but now has a significant role in setting our national security policy."
Dean's counterpart, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, responded: "It's disappointing that once again, so many Democrat leaders are taking their political cues from the far left. ... The bottom line is the Democrats are engaged in blatant partisan political attacks."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and a private group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called on Bush to suspend Rove's security clearances, shutting him out of classified meetings.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., asked the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee to hold a hearing where Rove would testify.
Rove should resign or the president should fire him, said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn PAC.