GOP moves to stem leak damage

Republicans encouraged to denigrate Wilson, stand against outside inquiry


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration pursued a two-track political strategy yesterday to minimize the damage from the criminal investigation into the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity.

The White House encouraged Republicans to portray the former diplomat at the center of the case, Joseph C. Wilson IV, as a partisan Democrat with an agenda and the Democratic Party as scandal-mongering.

At the same time, the administration and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill worked to ensure that no Republicans in Congress will break ranks and call for an independent inquiry outside direct Justice Department control.

"It's slime and defend," said a Republican aide on Capitol Hill, describing White House effort to raise questions about Wilson's motivations and its simultaneous effort to shore up support in the Republican ranks.

"So far so good," the aide said. "There's nervousness on the part of the party leadership, but no defections in the sense of calling for an independent counsel."

A day after the attorney general, John Ashcroft, announced that the Justice Department had begun a full investigation into whether administration officials had violated laws barring disclosure of classified information and the identity of undercover agents, officials said the FBI had yet to interview any White House staff members or take possession of any records.

There was no word of any White House officials hiring defense lawyers; President Bush conducted business as usual.

But the administration was girding for the first full-blown criminal inquiry to reach into the heart of the Bush White House. From the press office to the National Security Council and other executive branch departments, staff members ruminated about whether their phone logs, e-mail and other records might soon be sought by FBI agents.

Asked whether Bush would instruct staff members to submit to polygraph examinations if the Justice Department sought them, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said, "We will cooperate fully, at the direction of the president, with the Department of Justice."

Law enforcement officials were tight-lipped about details of the investigation. An FBI official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the first step was to develop a strategy for determining how broad a pool of people had access to classified information about Wilson's wife.

It is "a likely possibility" that the investigation could lead into the White House, the official acknowledged, but he cautioned against a rush to judgment.

With initial polling suggesting that voters are concerned about the accusations and the Democratic presidential candidates trying to make them an issue, the White House and its allies worked to shape public perceptions of the matter.

In particular, they raised questions about the motivations of Wilson, the former ambassador, who, along with his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA officer, is at the center of the affair.

In a "talking points" memorandum distributed yesterday to Republicans on Capitol Hill, the Republican National Committee suggested that the party should strike back at Democrats.

"Lacking a positive issue agenda to offer the American people, the Democrat Party now returns to what they have long seen as their best opportunity to defeat President Bush and Republicans - scandal mongering," the memo said.

House Republicans distributed white paper bags with the label "Leak hyperventilation bag," saying they might come in handy for Democrats who were having trouble catching their breath over the subject.

Republicans said Wilson is a partisan Democrat with ties to the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and a desire to drive Bush from office.

Wilson contributed $2,000 to Kerry's campaign and has said he might endorse him.

Wilson also contributed to both Bush and Al Gore, his Democratic rival, during the 2000 election cycle. He has given money in the past to a variety of other candidates from both parties.

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