Top Republicans exulted Tuesday at the news that Karl Rove had escaped a criminal charge.
But even without an indictment of President Bush's chief political advisor, the 3-year-old CIA leak investigation has dealt serious political damage to the president and some of his most trusted associates and friends. The White House still must try to overcome that damage as Republicans strive to retain control of Congress in the November elections.
Democrats on Tuesday said they would do all they could to keep alive the larger issues of the case, the most significant investigation to date into the workings of the Bush White House. Lacking a Rove indictment, they will attempt to focus public attention on the revelations that Rove and former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- and even Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- were involved in various decisions to leak information aimed at discrediting a critic of the Iraq war.
"The notion of the leak and the overall White House involvement, that ain't over," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic committee that sets strategy for House races. "Obviously, we know that 'Scooter' Libby is not Karl Rove. But you have the vice president of the United States involved, or at least his office was involved."
Another leading Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, said that Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's decision not to indict Rove should trigger a congressional investigation into whether the top White House aide mishandled classified information when he discussed CIA officer Valerie Plame with a reporter.
Waxman argued that although Fitzgerald conducted a "narrow" criminal investigation, Congress should examine the broader issue of whether Rove deserved to keep his high-level security clearance.
But the Democrats' aggressive talk has raised a pivotal question: Does the lack of a much-anticipated indictment of the country's most important Republican strategist mean that a bomb floating over GOP-led Washington has fizzled? Or is there still political meaning to an investigation that has kept the White House and its enemies in suspense since Plame's name was leaked three years ago?
Leading Republicans moved quickly Tuesday to turn the case back on Democrats, arguing that critics' earlier calls for Rove to be fired or lose his clearance were unfair. The Republican National Committee circulated quotes from Democratic lawmakers attacking Rove under the headline of "Wrong Again: Prejudging Karl Rove Is Latest Example of Democrats' Overheated Rhetoric and False Statements."
"What you had in this case was an unbelievable example of misjudgment for political purposes by leading Democrats," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Still, surveys over the last year have shown a dramatic drop in the public's approval and trust of the Bush administration. And although the White House has endured a number of problems, the leak case has proven a consistent thorn for administration officials, who have sought to downplay the inquiry and deny wrongdoing.
The biggest price has been paid in White House credibility. As the investigation was unfolding in late 2003, then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan initially denied the involvement of Rove and other senior White House personnel in the disclosure of Plame's identity, calling it "ridiculous" to suggest that Rove had been a part of such an effort.
Behind the scenes, however, as Fitzgerald's investigation has shown, top White House strategists had worked feverishly to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had infuriated officials by accusing the White House of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The accusation was worrisome for Bush aides, who knew that the Iraq war would be a central theme of the president's reelection campaign in 2004. So Plame's identity was leaked by anonymous senior officials as part of an effort to claim that Wilson's CIA-funded trip to the African nation of Niger to investigate whether Iraq had tried to purchase uranium ore there had been a junket arranged by his CIA officer wife.
As Fitzgerald's investigation has shown, not only was Rove involved in discussing Plame with reporters, but so was Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, who has been indicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges in the case.
The indictment of such a high-level official was particularly damaging for a president who campaigned in 2000 on restoring "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office and who pledged a higher standard of conduct for his staff.
Bush has enjoyed public approval for his moral leadership. Yet the Plame case has revealed how aggressively the White House responded to dissenters like Wilson, who drew the ire of administration officials when, in July 2003, he wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times questioning White House claims that Saddam Hussein had sought nuclear material from Niger.
The hardball proclivities weren't limited to behind-the-scenes strategists like Libby and Rove. The unfolding case would connect their actions to Cheney.
In pursuing the case against Libby, the special prosecutor released documents showing that the vice president was focused on questioning Wilson's motivation and credibility from the moment the article was published, just 10 weeks after Bush had landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished."
Fitzgerald released a copy of Cheney's handwritten notations atop Wilson's article: "Have they done this sort of thing before? Send an Amb. to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?"
Indeed, the notion that Wilson's trip to Africa was a junket arranged by his wife became a central part of the White House effort to undermine the former envoy, whose lengthy State Department career included postings in Iraq and Africa. The anti-Wilson campaign coincided with White House planning for the 2004 campaign.
Fitzgerald's investigation also led to revelations that Bush -- who for months had promised to root out leakers in his administration and punish whoever disclosed Plame's identity -- had authorized the release of classified information.
Wilson's contention that so offended the White House -- that the administration twisted intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq -- has since drawn support from intelligence officials around the globe, including former officers of the CIA. And the Niger uranium case that he described in his controversial article has become exhibit A in the cache of evidence assembled by critics to suggest that the administration cherry-picked intelligence information to justify the case for war.