WASHINGTON - Key Democrats seized yesterday on allegations that the White House blew the cover of a CIA operative who is the wife of a Bush administration critic, demanding an independent criminal inquiry into the leak.
Bush administration officials said the Justice Department had begun a preliminary investigation of the matter. But Senate and House Democratic leaders and presidential contenders say suspected wrongdoing by high-level White House staff members should be reviewed by an outside special counsel.
Calling the reported leak "a matter of utmost seriousness that could threaten the security of every American," Senate Democratic leaders said in a letter to President Bush that the appointment of a special counsel "is the best possible means of avoiding serious conflicts of interest."
The White House insisted that the Justice Department was the appropriate agency to look into any security leak.
On the defensive
The Democrats' demands opened a new front in an escalating political fight over Iraq. With U.S. forces in Iraq facing almost daily guerrilla attacks, lawmakers in both parties have challenged the Bush administration's $87 billion spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Bush administration has been thrown on the defensive about its pre-war claims about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee have said those claims seemed to be based on skimpy evidence. An American search in Iraq led by David Kay, a former United Nations weapons inspector, has failed to uncover any banned weapons.
Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman, said he knew of no information that anyone at the White House had exposed Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a retired diplomat and critic of Bush's Iraq policy, as a CIA agent. But McClellan described such a leak, which would violate federal law, as "a very serious matter" and said: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."
McClellan said the White House did not feel it necessary to conduct its own investigation of the matter.
Wilson, who served as U.S. envoy to Iraq in the first Bush administration, has accused the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, of exposing Plame's undercover role to punish him for criticizing the White House case for war.
Wilson alleged that Rove leaked his wife's secret identity to several journalists, including Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist who first revealed her job as a CIA officer.
In an article this year, Wilson disclosed that he had been sent by the CIA to the African nation of Niger in early 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had arranged to buy enriched uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons. He reported to the CIA that the existence of such a deal was highly doubtful.
Despite that finding, Bush referred to reports about an alleged Niger deal in his State of the Union address in January - an assertion the administration was later forced to acknowledge was based on dubious evidence.
On Aug. 21, Wilson said he would like to see Rove "frog-marched" out of the White House in handcuffs. Yesterday, he backed off the accusation against Rove, calling the Bush adviser "kind of a metaphor for the White House." But Wilson asserted: "I have every confidence that Karl Rove condoned [the leak] and did nothing to shut this off."
Demands for an independent investigation mounted after reports over the weekend that the Justice Department had opened a preliminary inquiry into the leak, after a request from the CIA.
As part of its inquiry, the Justice Department sent questions to the agency, covering, among other things, which officials had had access to information involving Plame before it was leaked. The agency sent its replies to the department in mid-September, an intelligence official said.
The agency's responses triggered what Justice officials called a preliminary inquiry, intended to determine whether a full criminal investigation is warranted. The inquiry is being conducted by the FBI and career lawyers in the counterespionage section of the Justice Department's criminal division.
Democrats speak out
On the campaign trail yesterday, several Democratic presidential hopefuls - Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, as well as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark - joined Democratic congressional leaders in calling for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.
Justice officials did not rule out the possibility of naming a special counsel, which is permitted under department rules. The old law allowing for the appointment of an "independent counsel" expired in 1999.
But Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman, rejected allegations by Democrats that Attorney General John Ashcroft would be unable to oversee a credible and thorough investigation.