WASHINGTON -- President Bush vowed yesterday to fire anyone in his administration who is found to have ''committed a crime" involving the disclosure of a former covert CIA agent's name, seemingly redefining the grounds for dismissal the White House had pledged when the case erupted in 2003.
''If someone committed a crime, they will no longer be in my administration," Bush said, answering a question about whether his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, should be fired if he is found to have leaked the identity of a former CIA operative, Valerie Plame. The leaking of information about Plame, who is married to a White House critic and a former ambassador, Joseph C. Wilson IV, is being investigated by a federal grand jury.
Bush's remarks suggested he has narrowed the criteria for sacking a White House employee in the Plame matter; previous statements by Bush and his press secretary, Scott McClellan, made as recently as last year, indicated that Bush would dismiss anyone from his staff who had identified Plame to reporters.
''If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if that person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of," Bush said at a campaign stop in Chicago in October 2003. McClellan, speaking to reporters just before the campaign appearance, said, ''If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."
Bush, asked directly in June 2004 if he would dismiss someone who leaked the agent's name, responded: ''Yes." But yesterday, as the drama over Rove's possible involvement escalated, he seemed to subtly alter the standard for ousting the friend and longtime adviser who masterminded his two winning presidential campaigns.
Democrats castigated the president for what they consider changing the rules during the inquiry to protect Rove. ''Today, it seems like he's trying to move the goalpost," said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant, said the Plame matter has developed into a Washington scandal in which the apparent coverup is worse than the crime.
''Everything is so tightly controlled in this White House," Fenn said, referring to the Bush administration's famously discreet operation. ''I've got to believe this goes all the way to the top. I think that what we've got here is typical damage control -- obfuscate, cover up, and hope it doesn't come back to bite you in the behind."
At the daily White House press briefing, McClellan was grilled relentlessly on the Rove matter. He denied yesterday that the standard had changed, but he did not explain to reporters why the president's remarks last year -- and McClellan's own assertions in 2003 -- did not amount to a change in position.
''I think that the president was stating what is obvious when it comes to people who work in the administration: that if someone commits a crime, they're not going to be working any longer in this administration," McClellan said. ''I think you should not read anything into it more than what the president said at this point."
Asked directly why the president simply has not called Rove into his office and demanded a full explanation, McClellan said: ''Because there's an investigation that is continuing at this point."
Bush himself urged people to avoid speculation about Rove, whom a Time magazine reporter named as one of the sources who revealed the agent's identity.
''I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. I will do so as well," Bush said during a brief appearance with India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh. ''I don't know all the facts, and I want to know all the facts. The best place for facts to be done is by somebody who's spending time investigating it."
''It sure does sound like he's trying to create some wriggle room to protect Rove," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas who has followed Bush's political career closely. The standard that Bush indicated yesterday is significant; specialists and analysts say it is very difficult to convict someone of the federal crime of knowingly identifying a covert CIA agent.
''I think it's going to be virtually impossible to indict, much less convict, under this law," said Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer with the Washington firm of Baker & Hostetler. The law was specifically written to apply to only a narrow set of circumstances, such as when someone deliberately reveals an agent's name, Sanford said.
Plame's name came up in 2003 after Wilson, an Africa specialist and a former US ambassador to Gabon and São Tome and Principe, wrote in an opinion article in The New York Times that his research had led him to conclude that the White House had trumped up allegations that Saddam Hussein was seeking yellow-cake uranium from Niger to develop weapons of mass destruction. That allegation became part of Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, bolstering the administration's case for war.
Syndicated columnist Robert Novak subsequently identified Plame in a column suggesting that Wilson's research in Niger was tainted because Plame, his wife, had arranged for Wilson to go to Africa on a fact-finding tour. Cooper also wrote about the case for Time.
In an account of his testimony before the grand jury in this week's issue of Time, Cooper said Rove did not mention Plame directly, but said she worked at ''the agency" and was involved in the issue of weapons of mass destruction. While Rove never spoke her name, critics note, she is married to Wilson and could be identified.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats continued to demand Rove's dismissal and pounced on Bush's statement yesterday as evidence of White House panic. Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said the changing standard has fed skepticism about the Bush administration's honesty.
''The White House credibility gap widens," said Kerry, who lost to Bush in the presidential race last fall. ''Either Karl Rove keeps making the president eat his words and further shreds his credibility, or they start leveling with Americans about this mess."
Representative Henry A. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Bush yesterday reiterating his request that Rove's security clearances be revoked.
He pointed out that under the executive order that governs Rove's employment, even confirming the name of a clandestine officer is grounds for the loss of access to classified documents or termination. ''Under the executive order, you may not wait until criminal intent and liability are proved by a prosecutor," wrote Waxman, a California Democrat.
''Instead," Waxman added, ''you have an affirmative obligation to take 'appropriate and prompt corrective action.' And the standards of proof are much different."
Republicans said Democrats are playing up the story and the possible connection with Rove to hurt Bush. ''They're looking to put a wedge between George Bush and the success of his presidency," said Representative Mark Foley, a Florida Republican.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, sent out a news release accusing Democratic leaders of using a ''cynical playbook of partisan politics, which only poisons the well for members who are working together this week in a bipartisan way to move America forward."