Eight in 10 Americans say the alleged White House leak of a CIA operative's identity is a serious matter, and nearly seven in 10 say it should be investigated by a special counsel, not by the administration's own Justice Department.
The issue has prompted significant suspicion and concern. In an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll more than seven in 10 think it's at least somewhat likely that someone in the White House did identify a former diplomat's wife as a covert CIA operative. If so, eight in 10 say that person should not only lose his or her job, but also face criminal charges.
Far fewer, 34 percent, think it's likely that President Bush himself knew in advance of the leak. But Bush faces other perception problems: Just under half of Americans, 47 percent, think the White House is "fully cooperating" with the investigation. Bush has signaled a preference for the Justice Department, not a special counsel, to investigate.
The news spread fast: In this poll, completed after the nightly news Tuesday, 68 percent of Americans said they'd heard or read about the issue. Those people were more likely to call it a "very" serious matter — but also less likely to suspect that Bush knew about it.
All told, 81 percent call the matter "serious," and 48 percent call it "very" serious. Partisanship plays a role in these views, with majorities of Democrats and independents calling it "very" serious, but just about a third of Republicans agreeing.
Majorities of Republicans, independents and Democrats alike say the matter should be investigated by an outside special counsel, not by the Justice Department. But the degree differs: Fifty-two percent of Republicans favor a special counsel; that jumps to 72 percent of independents and 83 percent of Democrats.
Similarly, majorities across party lines think it's at least somewhat likely that someone in the administration did leak this information. But again the degree differs (83 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents, 56 percent of Republicans), and Republicans are about 20 points less apt to call it "very" likely.
There are similar differences across ideological groups. Conservatives — a core Bush support group — are less apt to call it "very likely" that a leak occurred, somewhat less apt to call it a "very" serious matter, and less apt to favor a special counsel. (Fifty-three percent of conservatives favor a special counsel; that rises to 74 percent of moderates and more than eight in 10 liberals.)
Partisan and ideological differences peak on the question of whether the White House is cooperating in the investigation. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans and 62 percent of conservatives think so; just three in 10 Democrats and liberals agree. A sizable group, 16 percent, have no opinion yet on the level of White House cooperation.
All this comes at a difficult time for Bush. His overall job approval rating is 54 percent in this poll, its lowest in any ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll since he took office.
Amid continued difficulties in Iraq and economic discontent at home, Bush's approval rating is down 23 points from its recent peak during the Iraq war, and 38 points from its all-time high (the highest for any postwar president) of 92 percent a month after Sept. 11, 2001.
The change has been fundamentally a reassertion of political partisanship. Since the Iraq war, Bush's approval rating has held basically steady among Republicans (down five points), but has fallen by 28 points among independents, and by 36 among Democrats.
This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 30, among a random national sample of 505 adults. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Fieldwork was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.