Responding to the July 2003 outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the White House made an unqualified pledge to fire any administration official involved in leaking Plame's identity. But following allegations that White House senior adviser Karl Rove was involved in the Plame leak, The New York Times and The Washington Post presented this pledge more narrowly, writing that President Bush promised to fire only those administration officials who "knowingly" or "illegally" disclosed Plame's identity.
The distinction between what Bush actually pledged and what the Post and the Times reported that he pledged is significant. By pledging unequivocally to dismiss anyone who leaked classified information, Bush is now in a bind; recent reports reveal that Rove told Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper that former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV's wife worked at the CIA. If the perception takes hold that Bush had pledged only to fire anyone found to have "illegally" or "knowingly" leaked, then he could retain Rove, barring a criminal conviction, and claim that he kept his promise.
The Times reported on July 14: "Mr. Bush's comment came nearly two years after he suggested that he would fire anyone in his administration who had knowingly leaked the identity of the operative, Valerie Wilson."
The Post reported on July 14: "The White House had declared that Rove was not involved in Plame's unmasking, and, when the controversy broke in the summer of 2003, Bush said he would fire anyone who illegally outed a CIA official."
But as Media Matters for America documented, White House press secretary Scott McClellan explicitly stated in a September 29, 2003, press conference that Bush would fire anyone involved in outing an undercover CIA operative. McClellan did not hinge dismissal on criminal or intentional action:
Q: Scott, has anyone -- has the president tried to find out who outed the CIA agent? And has he fired anyone in the White House yet?
McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, that's assuming a lot of things. First of all, that is not the way this White House operates. The president expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. No one would be authorized to do such a thing.
McCLELLAN: The president has set high standards, the highest of standards for people in his administration. He's made it very clear to people in his administration that he expects them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct. If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.
Bush himself stated on September 30, 2003, that he would "take appropriate action" against "anybody in my administration who leaked classified information."
By retroactively amending Bush's words, the Post and the Times asserted that Bush said something even some Republicans reportedly think he wasn't sufficiently clear about. According to a July 14 San Francisco Chronicle article by Washington reporter Carolyn Lochhead, "Privately, Republicans concede the controversy hurts and wonder why Bush does not simply say Rove did not break the law and clarify that when he said he'd fire anyone in his administration for revealing classified information, he specifically meant someone who broke the law." If as the Post said, Bush's pledge was already limited to those who acted illegally, why would his supporters hope he would amend it now?