The controversy over the leak of a CIA agent's name involves three danger areas for the Bush White House: the crime, the credibility problem, and the dirty politics. Although the crime poses the greatest legal danger, the political danger starts at the other end—the perception that the White House engaged in dirty politics and is losing its credibility as a result.

It is not clear whether Karl Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff and longtime political adviser, will be charged with the crime of leaking the covert agent's identity. Rove's attorney has said that Rove is not the target of the special prosecutor's investigation.

But it looks like somebody in the administration committed a crime. The CIA agent's name was in a State Department memorandum that was sent to the White House. Somehow, the name got transmitted to reporters. That's why the special prosecutor has been investigating for more than a year. If the CIA agent "were only an analyst, not an operative, we would not have filed a crimes report with the Justice Department," a senior intelligence official told CNN in September 2003.

For the administration, credibility looms as a larger problem: Did the White House deliberately mislead the public about the leak? On September 29, 2003, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "If anyone in this administration was involved in [the leak], they would no longer be in this administration."

The evidence indicates that Rove discussed the CIA agent with reporters, even if he did not leak her name. He appears to have been one of the two anonymous sources that columnist Robert Novak cited when he revealed the agent's name in July 2003. Asked two months later whether Rove had been involved in the leak, McClellan responded, "It is totally ridiculous." In August 2004, Rove offered a carefully worded denial. "I didn't know her name," he told CNN. "I didn't leak her name."

Asked this month whether Rove had committed a crime, McClellan told reporters, "This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation. And I don't think you should read anything into it other than, we're going to continue not to comment on it while it's ongoing."

So, the White House has gone from absolute denial to stonewalling. If somebody in the White House did leak the agent's name, the judgment once offered by Napoleon's foreign minister would apply: "It is worse than a crime. It is a mistake."

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and a longtime observer of Washington politics, describes leaking as part of the Washington game: "A high-level political official is in the game of tug-of-war, and he is trying to pull reporters over to his side of the interpretation."

In this case, an administration official leaked information aimed at discrediting former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had charged that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

This leak was anything but ordinary, though. It included the information that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA.

To many Americans, it sounds like dirty politics for a White House official to use inside information to try to anonymously discredit a president's critic. As Hess put it, "If Joe Wilson's wife was an interior decorator, it would be OK. The problem is, she was an operative of the CIA."

Rove's defenders say that Rove only mentioned Wilson's wife to assert that she helped put her husband up to his criticism of the administration. Rove's objective, they say, was to urge reporters not to take Wilson's allegations too seriously. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said this month, "Karl Rove warned a reporter that Joe Wilson's story was inaccurate. And Karl was right. The story was inaccurate."

In July 2003, however, then-CIA Director George Tenet seemed to back up Wilson's allegations. In a statement about the president's claim in his State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium in Africa, Tenet said, "This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed."

If the White House wanted to discredit Wilson's story, why didn't it just say publicly that he was wrong? "They would probably have had to produce data, information," Hess said, "probably in this case, classified information."

The rules of the Washington game say that when you're under attack, attack your attackers. In 2003, that meant discrediting Wilson's allegations. In 2005, it means arguing that Rove is the one being smeared.

A July 13 editorial in The Wall Street Journal called Rove a "whistle-blower" for his effort to discredit Wilson. That's a stretch, in Hess's view. "Whistle-blower, in the Washington lexicon, is a person within the government, usually a low-level person, who has no other way of making his case and goes to the press," Hess said. "This was not a whistle-blower situation."

So where does this story go? Politically, it depends on whether the public sees it as a matter of serious ethical wrongdoing or simply as part of the usual Washington political game. One ominous sign for Bush: A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, taken July 8-11, shows that for the first time ever, more Americans give Bush negative marks (45 percent) than positive marks (41 percent) on the question of whether he is honest and straightforward.