WASHINGTON - In this city famous, or infamous, for political scandals, it's well understood that it's not just the crime, it's the cover-up that often leads to the downfall of the central figure.
Richard Nixon and his Watergate operatives and cronies proved the point in the 1970s, and Bill Clinton and his semantic evasions in the Monica Lewinsky fiasco did the same in the 1990s. Now it appears the George W. Bush administration is flirting with the same mistake in the case of the outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame.
The disclosure that Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, did discuss the covert agent with Time reporter Matthew Cooper, though perhaps not specifically by name, has been greeted by White House stonewalling.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has backtracked on repeated declarations that Mr. Rove had nothing to do with the outing, a charge Mr. McClellan on earlier occasions had dubbed "ridiculous."
Although the press secretary previously had no compunctions against commenting on the case, now he cites the federal prosecutors' "preference" that he say nothing during "an ongoing investigation."
When pointedly asked by White House reporters recently, Mr. McClellan would not say whether President Bush was sticking to his earlier pledge to fire anybody involved in the agent's outing, which could be a federal felony.
Nearly two years ago, the president said: "If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of. ... If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action." And a year ago, asked whether his intention was the same, he said, "Yes."
The basic lesson learned very late in the Watergate and Lewinsky cover-ups was to reveal the truth quickly and by so doing cut one's losses. Mr. McClellan is teetering on the brink of making the same mistake.
In an earlier briefing, the press secretary evaded a question about Mr. Rove's alleged involvement in the case with a Mr. Nice Guy defense.
"I've known Karl for a long time," he said then, "and I didn't even need to ask Karl, because I know the kind of person that he is, and he is someone that is committed to the highest standards of conduct. ... It's not something I needed to ask him, but I like to, as you do, verify things, make sure that it's completely accurate. But I knew that Karl would not be involved in something like this."
But matters have gone some distance since that reply. Now the wolves are at the door, and so far, at least, the door is being slammed shut. Democratic Sen. John Kerry has called for Mr. Rove to be fired, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has hinted that Mr. Rove should face prosecution. "If the allegations are true" that he outed Ms. Plame, he said, "this rises above politics and is about our national security."
The law on revealing the identity of a CIA agent, however, provides considerable wiggle room for any defendant. It says the outing must have been deliberate and that the offender must have known the agent was operating covertly and the government didn't want that known. Such caveats are an invitation for the accused to invoke a variation of the Bill Clinton "it depends on what the meaning of is is" defense.
Beyond the question of Mr. Rove's future, at stake is the credibility of Mr. Bush at a time that a cloud of deception still hovers over his decision to invade Iraq, and public doubts grow over his coping with the troubling aftermath.
This administration, in which nobody is ever blamed for what goes wrong, can't afford to let the culprit who outed the CIA agent, whoever it may be, escape identity and punishment.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.