Just how screwed is Karl Rove for his role in outing Valerie Plame? There’s no use asking Scott McClellan.

On Monday, during the daily White House press briefing, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was answering a question when NBC’s David Gregory cut him off. “If you’ll let me finish…” McClellan said. Then the unthinkable occurred. A reporter didn’t simply succumb to the administration’s heavy-handed press wrangling, rolling over, as the press corps has been doing for years, letting lies about Al Qaeda links to Saddam Hussein and the motivations for the war in Iraq go unchallenged. What happened then is that the gaggle grew a pair. “No, you’re not finishing,” Gregory snapped at McClellan, “because you’re not saying anything.”

The subject of that heated exchange was Karl Rove and his involvement in the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame nearly two years ago. Plame’s husband, former U.S. ambassador to Gabon Joseph Wilson, says Rove blew his wife’s cover in retaliation for Wilson having publicly doubted the Bush administration’s claims (since proved false) that Saddam Hussein was shopping for nuclear material in Africa. “You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved,” Gregory said Monday. “And now we find out that he spoke [to Time’s Matt Cooper] about Joseph Wilson’s wife. So don’t you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved or was he not?”

“There will be a time to talk about this, but now is not the time,” McClellan demured, which led a disgusted Gregory to mutter, “This is ridiculous.”

Another reporter at the briefing reminded McClellan that in June 2004 President Bush claimed he would fire anybody involved in the leak. McClellan responded, “We’re not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation from this podium.” During the briefing McClellan employed that same answer several dozen times.

John Roberts of CBS News was next in line to turn the screws—and he had dates! Roberts noted that in September 2003, well after the investigation had begun, McClellan was clearly talking about it. In fact, he stated that any White House employee involved in the leak would be fired. “And then,” Roberts continued, ”on June 10 of 2004…in the midst of this investigation, the president made his comment that, yes, he would fire anybody from the White House who was involved. So why have you commented on this during the process of the investigation in the past, but now you’re suddenly drawing a curtain around it?”

Terry Moran of ABC News started off conciliatory, but soon turned gruff. “You’re in a bad spot here, Scott,” Moran said, reminding McClellan that he’d stood up before that very press corps after the investigation had begun and assured them that he’d spoken to Rove, national security aide Elliot Abrams, and Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who had all sworn they weren’t the leaker.

“Now that Rove has essentially been caught red-handed peddling this information, all of a sudden you have respect for the sanctity of a criminal investigation?” Moran asked.

By this point McClellan had dug a deeper hole for the administration than he may have realized. Rove’s attorney claims that he is not the target of the special prosecutor’s investigation. More than likely this is just hair-splitting about whether Rove is the target or a target, or a person of interest in the investigation, or whatever. But splitting hairs is what white-shoe hired guns are paid handsomely to do. Rove split a few of his own when discussing his involvement in the Plame case with CNN last year. “I didn’t know her name,” he said. “I didn’t leak her name.” Maybe not, but Rove did tell Cooper that “Wilson’s wife” worked at the CIA. To suggest that he didn’t identify her only because he didn’t actually utter her name is positively Clintonian.

After 48 hours of silence, the GOP shook off its momentary daze and circled the wagons, singing Rove’s praise. RNC chairman Ken Mehlman went on CNN and asserted, incredibly, that Rove was in fact not the leaker, never mind that Rove’s lawyer had already all but admitted he was. The Wall Street Journal called Rove a heroic whistle-blower. (You can never have enough White House staffers outing CIA agents in a time of war.)

But they’ll have to be a little more convincing in their next media assault as Rove might be in real trouble. In addition to obstruction of justice, perjury (if Rove or anyone else lied to the grand jury) and conspiracy (if the White House tried to conceal his wrongdoing) charges, the stakes also include the not-so-small issue of Rove’s security clearance. Both Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have called on President Bush to yank Rove’s security clearance until the investigation is concluded. Outing a CIA agent is bad enough. But intentionally ruining the career of an undercover spy who works on weapons of mass destruction while we’re at war on that very issue, putting hundreds of her contacts around the world at risk, and doing it as part of a penny-ante political vendetta—that takes a special kind of disregard for national security.