The White House–at least in public–doesn’t seem willing to do much to determine whether administration officials blew the cover of an undercover CIA operative in order to mount a political hit job.

As reported in this column, a July 14 article by conservative journalist Robert Novak indicated that two unnamed “senior administration officials” had undermined national security and perhaps broken the law by revealing to Novak that the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson IV was a deep-cover CIA officer. Wilson is the envoy the CIA sent to Niger in February 2002 to check out the allegation that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium there. He reported back that the charge was probably false. Earlier this month, he went public and challenged the Bush administration’s account of the Niger episode. The Novak article–which made public the name of Wilson’s wife and reported she worked in the important area of weapons counterproliferation–had the stench of White House revenge and intimidation. It could be seen as a warning: take on this administration, and we’ll hurt you and your family.

Wilson will not confirm whether his wife, who is known to friends as an energy analyst in a private firm, is a CIA officer. But if she is, these officials ruined her career (and possibly past and present counterproliferation operations presumably of importance to national security) and they may have violated a federal law that prohibits persons with access to classified information from identifying covert officials. If she is not CIA, they falsely branded a private citizen an agency employee. And it was not only Novak whom they tipped off. Time reported that “government officials” had said the same to its reporters.

Was the White House conducting a smear campaign against the Wilson family and using classified intelligence to do so? When a reporter asked Scott McClellan, the new White House press secretary, about these articles, he replied, “Thank you for bringing that up. That is not the way this president or this White House operates. And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth to that suggestion. And, certainly, no one in this White House would have given authority to take such a step.”

Notice that he did not say that the White House was trying to find out if any of its people had engaged in this underhanded maneuver. McClellan said that he had seen no evidence, not that he (or anyone else in the White House) was looking for evidence.

“Is Novak lying?” McClellan was asked. “Do you think he’s making it up?”

“I’m telling you our position. I’ll let the columnist speak for himself.”

Was McClellan saying “flatly” it did not happen?

“I’m telling you, flatly, that that is not the way this White House operates….I’m saying no one was certainly given any authority to do anything of that nature.”

Did McClellan “want to get some more facts?”

“If I could go find ‘anonymous,’ Terry, I would.”

And did Bush support “a criminal investigation”?

McClellan did not answer that question and moved on. He did not report that Bush was outraged that anything of this sort might have happened and was demanding to know for certain it had not. His remarks hardly conveyed a message from Bush to his underlings: don’t you dare pull crap like this. And McClellan dodged the inconvenient fact that it was not only Novak who claimed to have received information about Wilson’s wife from administration officials; it was Time, too. What are the odds that both the newsmagazine and the columnist got it wrong? McClellan wasn’t asked that.

Here’s the accusation: to punish Wilson and frighten others, administration officials outed Wilson’s wife at the risk of damaging government efforts to track and block the spread of WMDs. Here’s the White House reply: well, we don’t know anything about it, and we’re not looking into it.

This is as serious–if not more so–than the FBI files flap that occurred during the Clinton years, when it turned out that a White House security office improperly had in its possession the FBI files of hundreds of people–including officials of the previous administration. That caused a major fuss: investigations, denunciations from media commentators. The Wilson affair is a natural subject of inquiry for, say, the House government affairs committee, which generally conducts oversight of the White House. Under GOP Representative Dan Burton this committee enthusiastically probed every nook and cranny of the Clinton administration: Filegate, Travelgate, Whitewater. Representative Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is interested in the Wilson case. But don’t bet on the Republicans in control of the committee to rush ahead. Even some Democrats are not eager to deal with an issue like this. At a meeting of House Democrats this morning, several senior legislators cautioned their comrades that it was bad politics to be raising questions about Bush’s prewar assertions and related matters. That was not the majority position, a participant said, but it does hinder the Democrats from aggressively pursuing contentious issues.

There is no doubt that the FBI and other institutions in Washington have taken note of the Novak and Time articles. But there are no signs yet any investigations will materialize. Of the leading members of the congressional intelligence committees, only one (as of this writing) has expressed anger that the Bush administration might have ruined the operations and career of an operative involved in a critical area. “If the allegations are true, then I think it is reprehensible,” says Senator John Rockefeller IV, the senior Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. But he has not yet publicly demanded an investigation.

Sometimes in the nation’s capital, controversies fizzle and fade, sometimes they intensify and spread. Will these administration officials get away with a smear that may have harmed national security? If Bush has his way, they will.