Bush doubts investigators can find CIA leak sources

3 top White House aides have denied culpability, his spokesman says


WASHINGTON - President Bush expressed doubts yesterday that Justice Department investigators would track down two senior administration officials who illegally identified undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in an alleged scheme to silence her husband, Iraq policy critic Joseph Wilson.

Bush commented as presidential spokesman Scott McClellan announced that three top presidential aides had denied leaking the identity of the CIA officer, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and $50,000 in fines.

McClellan said he had obtained face-to-face denials from White House political director Karl Rove; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff; and Elliott Abrams, an official with the National Security Council.

While stressing that the three officials had denied telling syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak about Wilson's wife, McClellan declined to discuss whether any of the officials later tried to widen the impact of the published leak by calling the attention of other journalists to the Novak column.

McClellan's comments drew a sharp distinction between the original leak to Novak and a so-called second wave of unidentified White House officials who are suspected of alerting other journalists to Novak's revelation.

The original leaker could be subject to prosecution, but officials who participated in any second wave would be engaging in a common behind-the-scenes practice in the nation's capital that is neither a crime nor the subject of the Justice Department inquiry.

"The subject of this investigation is whether or not someone leaked classified information," McClellan said as he dismissed questions about the second wave.

Bush told reporters in a question-and-answer session during a Cabinet meeting that he did not know "if we're going to find out" the identity of the administration officials who Novak said told him of Plame's identity.

"I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is," Bush added, noting that "this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials."

Novak quoted "two senior administration officials" in his July 14 column, which revealed Plame's name, her duties as CIA intelligence specialist on weapons of mass destruction, her marriage to Wilson and her alleged go-between role in choosing her husband for a CIA mission to Africa. Plame had been an undercover CIA employee at an energy consulting firm in the United States and overseas.

Novak's column was published eight days after Wilson, Plame's husband, embarrassed the Bush administration by revealing in a New York Times op-ed page article that his CIA-sponsored mission to Niger had concluded that Iraq had not tried to buy uranium from the West African nation.

Bush had claimed a Niger-Iraq uranium link in his State of the Union address in January as part of his effort to gain support for war in Iraq.

McClellan attacked Wilson's credibility for the first time from the White House podium. He challenged Wilson's claims that the CIA sent him to Niger in response to questions raised by the office of the vice president and that his findings "contradicted" Bush's statement in the State of the Union address that Iraq sought uranium in Africa.

It wasn't Cheney's office but the CIA's counterproliferation team, including Wilson's wife, that decided to send Wilson to Niger to check into reports of Iraqi uranium purchases, McClellan said.

"It is absurd to suggest that this White House would seek to punish someone for speaking out with a different view," McClellan said. "It's perfectly acceptable when someone makes statements that aren't based on the facts to correct that information."

White House officials said yesterday that it might take White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales several weeks to review potential evidence from up to 2,000 presidential staffers before the material is turned over to the FBI in response to last week's Justice Department request for "all relevant material" about the leak.

McClellan called it "standard practice" for the White House counsel to review evidence in a criminal inquiry before it is turned over to the Justice Department. White House lawyers will make sure all material handed over to the FBI is "relevant" to avoid burdening investigators with unrelated material, McClellan said.

An initial deadline for staffers to turn over material by 5 p.m. yesterday was been eased to a "self-imposed internal deadline" that could slip in response to staffers' "extenuating circumstances" such as official travel or vacation, he said.

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