WASHINGTON -- President Bush's lack of action against a top aide involved in the disclosure of a covert CIA operative's identity sends ''the wrong message" overseas, former US intelligence officials said yesterday.
At an unofficial congressional hearing sponsored by House and Senate Democrats, the retired agents said US intelligence gathering had been damaged by the leak of Valerie Plame's name two years ago after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the White House's justification for going to war in Iraq.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified to a federal grand jury that presidential adviser Karl Rove told him that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, but did not disclose her name.
Cooper has also said he discussed the couple with Lewis ''Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
''What has suffered irreversible damage is the credibility of our case officers when they try to convince an overseas contact that their safety is of primary importance to us," said Jim Marcinkowski, a former CIA case officer.
He also criticized Republican efforts to minimize the damage caused by the leak.
''Each time the political machine made up of prime-time patriots and partisan ninnies display their ignorance by deriding Valerie Plame as a mere paper-pusher, or belittling the varying degrees of cover used to protect our officers, or continuing to play partisan politics with our national security, it's a disservice to this country," he added.
Bush pledged this week to fire anyone found to have ''committed a crime" in the controversy, backing away from a broader pledge to dismiss anyone found to have leaked information in the case.
Marcinkowski said that the criminal standard was too high and that Bush should take action against those involved.
''Inaction itself sends the message -- the wrong message," he said.
As controversy over the matter heated up in recent weeks, the White House has refused to answer questions about Rove, who is credited with being the architect of the president's election victories.
So far, the only person to suffer legal sanction in the case is New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who has been jailed for refusing to testify about her sources.
Congressional Republicans have rushed to defend Rove and criticize Wilson, who took a CIA-funded trip in 2002 to investigate a charge that Iraq tried to buy nuclear materials in Africa, and later accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the Iraqi weapons threat. They said Rove is a ''whistle-blower" because Wilson told lies about the trip and he was trying to set the Time reporter straight.
Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst who said he was a registered Republican, spoke harshly of the criticisms of Wilson and efforts to minimize his wife's job at the CIA.
''This is wrong. This should stop. And it could stop in a heartbeat if the president would simply put a stop to it -- he hasn't," Johnson said. ''That speaks volumes."
White House officials have sought to put the controversy behind them pending the outcome of a federal investigation.
Bush aide Karen Hughes, however, faced questions from reporters yesterday after testifying on Capitol Hill.
''There's an ongoing investigation," she said.