WASHINGTON -- The political relationships of two key figures in the dispute over whether a Bush administration aide leaked the identity of a CIA operative took center stage yesterday, as members of both parties contended that the case could be tainted by politics.
Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who said a Bush aide disclosed that his wife is a CIA operative in retaliation for his criticism of the Iraq war, has worked since May as an unpaid adviser to Senator John F. Kerry, offering foreign policy advice and speechwriting tips to the Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said Wilson's work for Democrats may have motivated him to attack the administration.
But Democrats noted that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who is overseeing the investigation, has had a long political relationship with President Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove. Rove was a strategist for Ashcroft's political campaigns in Missouri.
Rove remained a center of speculation yesterday about the case. Wilson has said that Rove condoned the leak and directed reporters to it after it appeared in a column by Robert Novak.
Under sharp questioning from reporters at an afternoon press conference, White House press secretary Scott McClellan insisted that Rove did not provide the leak or condone it, but declined to say whether Rove had pointed reporters toward news reports containing the information.
"Now, we're getting into issues such as, did anyone talk about what was in the news, what was reported in the paper, things of that nature," McClellan said. "That can go down a whole lot of different roads."
Later, McClellan added: "As I said previously, he was not involved, and that allegation is not true in terms of leaking classified information, nor would he condone it. But . . . we're not going to go down every single allegation that someone makes."
But legal specialists said that for an administration official even to point to published reports in a way that confirms those reports would be a violation of the federal law governing disclosure of classified information, punishable by five years in prison, a $25,000 fine, or both.
Morton Halperin, who helped craft the law when he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s, said it sets up a two-pronged test for government officials: An official would have to know the classified information is true and then transmit it. There is no protection, Halperin said, for government officials who directed others to that information after someone else disclosed it.
Philip Heymann, a professor at Harvard Law School, agreed. He also said that investigators could have an easier time getting to the bottom of the disclosures in this case than in other instances. "In general, a secret is known by the Defense Department, the White House, and the CIA," said Heymann, who was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. "That multiplies by 10 the number of people who know the secret. In this one, you're looking pretty hard at the White House and maybe 20 people."
The administration has promised to cooperate in every way it can, but some Republicans expressed anger yesterday at the way Wilson targeted Rove.
"Full disclosure is important here, so people can understand the context of Ambassador Wilson's comments all along," said John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis J. Hastert, Republican of Illinois. "He's certainly not a disinterested party here."
Kerry's advisers acknowledged yesterday that Wilson, who has also donated $2,000 to Kerry this year, told them about his allegations against the White House involving his wife before going public with them this summer. But Rand Beers, Kerry's top adviser on foreign affairs, said the campaign has not played a role in coordinating Wilson's charges.
In 2002 the Bush administration tapped Wilson, a career diplomat, to investigate British reports that Iraq sought to buy nuclear materials from Niger. Wilson found no evidence. But a year later, in his State of the Union speech, Bush cited intelligence reports that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Wilson challenged that statement in a July op-ed piece in The New York Times. A week later, Novak disclosed that two senior Bush officials had told him that Wilson's wife was a "CIA operative" who had suggested him for the Niger mission.
In the time between the State of the Union speech and Wilson's op-ed article, Wilson grew increasingly angry with Bush's leadership during the war and the uncontested assertions about nuclear material, Kerry advisers say. In mid-May, he began talking to Kerry's advisers about helping the campaign; he made his first donation May 23.
Kerry himself had not met Wilson until Tuesday night at a campaign fund-raiser in Potomac, Md., a Kerry aide said yesterday.
On a campaign swing through Texas yesterday, Kerry said he was troubled that some Republicans have questioned Wilson's donations. "This smacks of Nixonian attacks: When you're caught doing something wrong, you retaliate by attacking the person telling the truth," he said. Wilson has had political and financial ties to both Democrats and Republicans: He was lauded by former President George H.W. Bush for "truly inspiring" service as head of the US Embassy in Baghdad during the run-up to the first Gulf War, and he donated $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000.
Kerry spokeswoman Kelley Benander said yesterday that Wilson's campaign portfolio includes such issues as Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, the Liberian conflict, and Africa. Beers said Wilson communicates with campaign advisers at least once a week. He is one of about 35 people contributing ideas to the campaign, Benander said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill seized on Ashcroft's past relationship with Rove as reason that he should appoint a special counsel, free of Justice Department scrutiny, to oversee the investigation. Democrats in Missouri, where Ashcroft served as governor and US senator before Bush asked him to run the Justice Department, said Rove worked on political campaigns for Ashcroft in 1984, 1988, and 1992. "It's one thing to meet a guy at a cocktail party," said Roy Temple, a Democratic strategist in Missouri. "This guy was part of his strategic team."
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Rove has acknowledged helping Ashcroft on one and perhaps two campaigns.
A Justice Department official reached last night would not comment on any Rove-Ashcroft connections and emphasized it is still possible the attorney general could appoint a special counsel.