White House focus of probe into CIA leak

Justice opens investigation into naming of operative

No special counsel appointed

President instructs staff to cooperate with inquiry

October 01, 2003|By Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan | Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into allegations that Bush administration officials may have revealed the identity of a CIA operative whose husband had criticized President Bush's rationale for the war in Iraq.

The investigation embroils the White House at a time when the president's reasons for going to war in Iraq are drawing increasing scrutiny and members of Congress are chafing at his request for $87 billion for the continued occupation and reconstruction of the country.

Bush instructed his White House staff yesterday to cooperate with the inquiry, and the top White House lawyer told staffers in a memo to "preserve all materials that might in any way be related to the department's investigation."

"This investigation is a good thing," Bush told reporters. He defended the Justice Department's ability to conduct the probe instead of naming an outside special counsel, as demanded by several prominent Democrats.

"I'm absolutely confident that the Justice Department can do a good job," Bush said during a trip to Chicago. The president said he did not know of anyone in his administration who had leaked sensitive information, but he condemned the practice.

"Leaks of classified information are bad things. ... I've spoken out consistently against them, and want to know who the leakers are," he said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to say why he did not appoint a special counsel. Justice officials said the decision to launch the investigation was made by the chief of the department's counterespionage section. Ashcroft was not informed until after the fact, one official said.

The inquiry will be conducted by the FBI and career prosecutors in the criminal division, officials said. But Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Ashcroft had not ruled out naming a special counsel at a later date.

"All options are open," Corallo said.

Democrats say the Justice Department has a conflict of interest because the attorney general is a presidential appointee and has ties with White House officials who might come under investigation.

While Justice Department officials reject this charge, they are acutely aware of the political sensitivity of the case. At the FBI last night, officials were considering steps that would protect Director Robert S. Mueller III, also a Bush appointee, from any appearance of a conflict.

Ashcroft disclosed yesterday that the decision to launch a full-scale investigation was made Friday. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said he was informed of the decision Monday night. He told the president and sent out the memo to White House staffers early yesterday and more detailed instructions late in the day.

The later instructions called for White House staffers to report any contacts with three journalists - syndicated columnist Robert Novak; and two Newsday reporters, Timothy M. Phelps, the Washington bureau chief, and Knut Royce.

The investigation was triggered in July by a request from CIA lawyers that the Justice Department look into the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity in a July 14 column by Novak, who attributed the information to "two senior administration officials." Phelps and Royce, citing unidentified intelligence officials, reported July 22 that Plame worked in an undercover capacity.

Plame is married to retired Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been sent by the agency last year to check out reports of a deal by Iraq to acquire nuclear-weapons fuel from Niger. Wilson, who had served in Africa and as the last envoy to Iraq under the president's father, concluded such a deal was "highly doubtful." Later, he criticized Bush for mentioning the reports in his 2003 State of the Union address to justify attacking Iraq.

Neither the CIA nor Wilson has confirmed that Plame is or has been a clandestine operative, although intelligence officials say there would have been no reason to alert the Justice Department if the agent operated openly.

Novak described her in the column as "an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction" and reported being told by senior officials that she had suggested her husband be tapped for the Niger assignment.

An intelligence official refused to comment on her involvement except to say: "It would be incorrect to report that she was responsible for it."

Novak has since said agency officials discouraged him from mentioning Plame by name but did not press the issue.

Officials said the time between the initial CIA report of a possible violation in July and the decision to launch a investigation was taken up laying the groundwork for the inquiry. In such cases, the CIA answers a series of 11 questions that deal with whether classified information has been disclosed that could damage national security and who would have had access to the information.

The agency turned in its replies Sept. 23, Justice officials said.

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