The confrontation over the next Supreme Court appointment may be grabbing most of the political headlines lately, but another juicy political story is percolating up through blogs and certain mainstream news outlets, and it has die-hard Democrats salivating because of its potential to make President Bush's feared political advisor, Karl Rove, squirm—and perhaps even do time.

The complicated story has its roots in the outing, in 2003, of CIA officer Valerie Plame by conservative columnist Robert Novak. That outing, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, seriously hurt Plame's career as an undercover agent, and was apparently accomplished through a leak to Novak from within the Bush administration. The leak was widely seen as revenge for an op-ed that Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, published in the New York Times criticizing the administration's pre-war claims about Iraq. (Wilson, a career diplomat, contradicted the administration's line about Iraqi leaders trying to purchase uranium from the small African nation of Niger, and was in a position to know something about the subject, since the administration quietly sent him to Niger to investigate the claim before the war.)

Bush, who has always said keeping secrets and supporting national security are among his top priorities, couldn't turn a blind eye to a crime against a CIA employee, even if it seemed likely to have been committed as a means to his own political ends. Now, however, Bush's patriotic stance may end up unearthing the unpatriotic deeds of his closest aide.

A special prosecutor was appointed to get to the bottom of things back in the fall of 2003. That prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has doggedly hunted the leaker for the last year and a half, during which time Rove has always been seen as a prime suspect, at least among media-watchers and hopeful Democrats. Now, the hunt appears to be reaching a climax as two journalists who have been ordered by a federal judge to give up their sources in the Plame story face jail this week for refusing to comply. One is Judith Miller of the New York Times, who gathered information related to the story but never published an article, and the other is Matthew Cooper, of Time magazine, who did publish a piece. Cooper's employer, Time Inc., recently decided to comply with a court order it was facing regarding Cooper's notes, and turned them over to the special prosecutor despite Cooper's objections. Shortly thereafter, Newsweek ran a story saying Cooper's notes show Rove was a source on the Plame story.

The Time magazine notes may or may not be the smoking gun that links Rove to a federal crime, but the reported emergence of hard evidence that could connect the "hand of Rove" to the Plame outing was enough to send Democrats gleefully poring back over Bush's words on the matter in an effort to bind him to punishing any illegal actions by Rove.

AMERICAblog, the liberal website run by John Avarosis, recently posted the following exchange between a reporter and Bush regarding the Plame leak back in October of 2003:

Q: Mr. President, on another issue, the CIA leak-gate. What is your confidence level in the results of the DOJ investigation about any of your staffers not being found guilty or being found guilty?

PRESIDENT BUSH: First of all, I'm glad you brought that question up. This is a very serious matter, and our administration takes it seriously... I am most interested in finding out the truth... This is a serious charge... We're talking about a criminal action, but also hopefully will help set a clear signal we expect other leaks to stop, as well. And so I look forward to finding the truth.

Now that the truth seems closer to emerging, Rove has been notably silent. New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer has called on Rove to publicly explain what he told Cooper, but as of early this week Rove had left it to his lawyer to do the explaining. The lawyer, Robert Luskin, told Newsweek that Rove "never knowingly disclosed classified information," leaving a lot of wiggle room for what Rove might later be shown to have "unknowingly" done, and only further whetting Democratic appetites for Rove's comeuppance.

Meanwhile, on the blog, which claims to have broken the story of a definitive Rove connection, there were more posts about past administration statements that don't bode well for Rove should he be found to be the leaker, and more demands that Rove answer questions—questions that, as a few mainstream media stories noted, Rove was not answering. ■