WASHINGTON - A spy outed. A reporter jailed. And now, a White House operative fingered.

Democrats couldn't have spun a more intriguing conspiracy theory around Karl Rove, President Bush's political guru and top adviser, if they'd tried.

As Rove emerges as a central figure in an ever-more-provocative case involving the unmasking of a CIA agent, Democrats and liberal groups are seizing on the story as proof of their more sweeping charge that Bush has put partisan loyalty and political advantage ahead of national security.

Recent news accounts have stirred speculation that Rove exposed the identity of Valerie Plame, whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, worked to discredit Bush's case for going to war in Iraq. The flurry of reports has given fresh impetus to anti-Bush forces, who have long sought evidence that the White House will go to any lengths to stifle dissent over its policies, especially the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Yesterday, the White House refused to repeat its denials that Rove had broken the law.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, declined to answer questions about Rove's involvement in the matter, leading Democrats to charge him with stonewalling, thus adding Watergate-era rhetoric to the mix.

Liberal groups are calling for Rove's ouster, saying he broke the law by revealing Plame's identity, first reported in 2003 by columnist Robert Novak.

Republicans dismissed Democrats' condemnations of Rove as politically motivated name-calling and accused Democrats of using the episode to smear the Bush administration for partisan gain.

Most Republicans followed the White House lead, refusing to comment on specifics until all the facts are known.

"There's an ongoing investigation on this, so it would be premature for us to comment, but the Democrats sure are trying to score political points off of it. They're just playing partisan politics without knowing the facts," said Ron Bonjean, communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Investigating the leak

A federal prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has been investigating the leak of Plame's name to journalists since December 2003. His probe reportedly centers on whether someone in the White House outed Plame to retaliate against Wilson for his op-ed piece in The New York Times that criticized Bush for relying on discredited information when he said in a State of the Union speech that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger as part of a nuclear arms program.

The case reached a crescendo last week when Judith Miller, a Times reporter questioned in the case, went to jail rather than reveal sources with whom she discussed the matter. Reporter Matt Cooper of Time magazine, avoided jail by agreeing to testify about his source, whom he said had granted permission.

It had long been rumored that Rove was a source for Novak's column, but it was not until last weekend, after the revelation of internal e-mail detailing a conversation between Cooper and Rove, that Rove's attorney reportedly confirmed that his client had spoken with the Time reporter about Plame's role at the CIA. The attorney, Robert Luskin, told Newsweek that Rove did not identify Plame by name.

Luskin had said previously that Rove, 54, was not the target of the investigation. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.

A key question is whether Rove committed a crime when he spoke about Plame's job. Federal law bars individuals with access to classified information from "intentionally" and knowingly identifying a covert agent whose intelligence role the United States "is taking affirmative measures to conceal."

Bush said last year that he would fire anyone in his administration responsible for such a leak, a promise that Democrats, including the party's leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, urged the president yesterday to honor.

McClellan told reporters in 2003 that Rove was not the leaker, calling the suggestion "ridiculous," and said that "if anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

In refusing to answer questions about the matter yesterday, McClellan did not say whether Bush would stand by his pledge to fire anyone responsible for the disclosure. The spokesman said only that he would not comment on an ongoing investigation.