WASHINGTON - President Bush qualified his pledge to dismiss any White House official found to have leaked the name of a CIA operative, saying Monday that "if someone committed a crime" he would be fired.
In September 2003, the White House said anyone who leaked classified information in the case would be dismissed. Bush reiterated that promise last June, saying he would fire anyone found to have disclosed the CIA officer's name.
Democrats said Bush in his new comments had "lowered the ethics bar" for his administration.
Bush would not say whether he was displeased that Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff, told a reporter that the wife of administration critic Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction issues. A 2003 phone call with Rove was the first time that Matthew Cooper of Time magazine had heard that Wilson's wife worked at the agency, according to a first-person account by Cooper in the magazine.
The president, in a news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said there was a "serious ongoing investigation."
"I think it's best that people wait until the investigation is complete before you jump to conclusions. And I will do so, as well," he said. "I don't know all the facts. I want to know all the facts."
Rove's involvement in the leak case has worried Republicans, already anxious about Bush's decline in opinion polls. Only one-fourth of Americans believe the White House is cooperating fully with the investigation, according to an ABC News poll released Monday. That number has dropped from half in September 2003, when the probe began.
Democrats contended that Bush's comments indicated he was lowering the administration's ethical standards.
"It appears that an administration that came to office promising 'honesty and integrity' and to avoid 'legalisms' is now defining ethical standards downward," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.
"In this White House, apparently no aide will be fired or forced to resign unless and until the jail cell door is locked behind him."
In July 2003, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, citing unnamed administration officials, wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA.
A 1982 law prohibits the deliberate exposure of the identity of an undercover CIA official. Wilson has accused the White House of trying to orchestrate a dirty-tricks campaign to discredit him after he challenged the administration's assertion that Saddam Hussein was seeking material from Niger to make nuclear weapons and said the White House had manipulated pre-war intelligence to justify an Iraq invasion.
While Rove has not disputed that he told Cooper that Wilson's wife worked for the agency, he has insisted through his lawyer that he did not mention her by name.
Said Bush on Monday, "I would like this to end as quickly as possible ... and if someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Bush's standard for firing Rove was not consistent with a two-year-old executive order governing the protection of national secrets. Under the order, Bush is required to impose administrative sanctions such as dismissal if anyone acted negligently in confirming information about Plame's identity.
Howard Dean, head of the Democratic Party, said Bush "lowered the ethics bar" and should go back to his earlier pledge.