WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is demanding that the White House turn over "all documents that relate in any way" to the unauthorized disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, and the White House said yesterday that its employees have until Tuesday to comply.
The demand signals that the FBI's investigation into the question of who leaked the identity of the CIA officer is focusing squarely on the White House and is moving into a critical early phase, as investigators seek a paper trail of all relevant documents.
The Justice Department has also directed the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon to retain all records that might be relevant to the investigation. But only the White House is known to have been directed to turn over records.
Investigators want access to all electronic records, phone logs, documents, diaries or other items related to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, his trip to Niger last year in a search for Iraqi nuclear intelligence, his wife's relationship with the CIA or any contact with the syndicated columnist Robert Novak or two other reporters who wrote about the Wilson case.
The Justice Department notified the White House about the demand in a letter Thursday night, which the White House publicized yesterday.
The keen interest in Wilson's trip to Africa in February last year, taken at the request of the CIA, which dispatched him to try to verify accusations linking Saddam Hussein to a quest for nuclear weapons, has surprised current and former law enforcement officials.
The wide scope of the records request suggests that the Justice Department wants to establish not only whether any administration officials disclosed classified information, but also whether White House records could link the motivation for that leak to information related to Wilson's African mission.
In a memorandum sent to all White House employees yesterday morning, Alberto R. Gonzales, counsel to the president, said the Justice Department had "requested that we provide these documents" to aid in its investigation.
A former prosecutor with experience in leak investigations said the Justice Department's directive was a request in name only, and Gonzales said prosecutors had imposed deadlines for compliance.
"Anyone who does not immediately produce relevant documents is risking an obstruction-of-justice charge," the former prosecutor said.
Gonzales told employees that they have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to turn over to his office any documents relevant to the investigation and that they must sign a letter certifying that they have complied.
A White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the Justice Department has established a list of prioritized items that it wants to see first and that the White House expects to turn over all relevant documents within two weeks.
With three days remaining for White House employees to turn over records to Gonzales, the directive is likely to set off a time-consuming search of White House records just as the Bush administration is turning its attentions to next year's election campaign.
"These things are a major headache," said a former Clinton administration official who worked at the White House when it was hit with numerous document requests as part of investigations into Whitewater and other matters.
"If the things they're looking for aren't in your active files, it's in a box somewhere and you have to go find it. It's very time-consuming."
Novak reported in a syndicated column in July that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Wilson has suggested that the unauthorized disclosure was designed by the White House to intimidate him after he had challenged the credibility of its Iraqi intelligence.
In an op-ed article in The New York Times days earlier, the former ambassador wrote that his trip to Niger last year had found nothing to substantiate the charge that Hussein had purchased uranium ore - called yellowcake - in Niger and that the Bush administration had exaggerated the intelligence as it prepared for war with Iraq.
George Terwilliger III, deputy attorney general in the first Bush administration, said he was surprised that officials were seeking 18-month-old information on Wilson's Niger trip. "One would hope that this investigation would be quite focused and expedited, and it's not immediately apparent to me how this advances the investigation," he said.
Wilson and others have suggested that they believe Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, was behind the leak, but the White House said this week that any accusations linking Rove to the episode are "ridiculous."
Justice Department officials refused yesterday to discuss the demand for documents or any other legal tactics in the case.
"All I can say is, this investigation will go wherever the evidence takes us," said Mark Corallo, spokesman for the Justice Department.
As the leak investigation dominated the White House this week, Democrats have pushed for John Ashcroft, the attorney general, to appoint a special counsel. They maintain that Ashcroft's close political ties to the White House could compromise the investigation.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, stepped up the attack yesterday in a letter to Ashcroft questioning whether the investigation was "being mishandled to the point where authorities will be unable to prosecute those who committed this felonious breach of national security."
The senator accused the Justice Department of being slow to order the White House, the Defense Department and the State Department to preserve records relevant to the investigation. The delay, he said, "gave potential targets of the investigation time to destroy evidence."
Justice Department officials said that they were moving quickly to ensure a fair and complete investigation and that the agencies they have contacted had pledged their cooperation.