Ashcroft steps out of CIA leak inquiry

Illinois federal prosecutor is named special counsel

December 31, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department named a special counsel yesterday to lead an investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative after Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the inquiry.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey said Ashcroft decided to step aside out of "an abundance of caution" that his presence could cause the appearance of a conflict of interest in an inquiry that involves the White House and agencies that include the State Department, Pentagon and CIA.

Investigators are trying to determine who disclosed the name of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame to a newspaper columnist, possibly to discredit her husband, who had criticized the Bush administration's rationale for war in Iraq.

Ashcroft has close ties with administration officials who have been questioned about possible involvement in the leak.

The announcement was a departure for the department, which for three months has defended its ability to investigate the leak allegations impartially with a career prosecutor in the department's criminal division at the helm.

Ashcroft had left open the possibility that he might name a special counsel, but department officials until yesterday said they were confident the investigation could be best handled by the criminal division.

Yesterday, Comey, who became responsible for the matter with Ashcroft's recusal, said he appointed Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, giving him ultimate discretion to pick a new team if he wishes. Fewer than a dozen FBI agents from bureau headquarters and the department's espionage unit have handled the case to date.

Ryan indictment

Fitzgerald's background includes the high-profile indictment of former Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, who was charged with 22 counts of corruption and tax fraud this month. He has pleaded not guilty. As a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, Fitzgerald contributed to the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

"I have today delegated to Mr. Fitzgerald all the approval authorities that will be necessary to ensure that he has the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation," Comey said. "He has the power and authority to make whatever prosecutive judgments he believes are appropriate without having to come back to me or anybody else at the Justice Department for approvals."

Comey would not say what led Aschroft to recuse himself, other than to say that the decision was based on "the totality of circumstances and the facts in evidence developed at this stage of the investigation."

Justice Department officials said discussions about Ashcroft withdrawing intensified in the past week. They said the decision was not necessarily tied to a break in the case, though sources say the investigation has narrowed in recent weeks.

Comey called Fitzgerald "an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor" and described him as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor," referring to the federal investigator of "Untouchables" fame.

In a statement, Fitzgerald's Chicago office said he would continue to serve as a U.S. attorney in Illinois during his tenure but would not comment further.

Congressional Democrats who had called for Ashcroft to step aside said they were pleased at the move yesterday.

"In effect, this is very close to the special counsel we asked for," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from New York. "The autonomy that U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald has been given and Deputy A.G. Comey's previous assurance that he will report to Congress should any area of the investigation be blocked, in effect, makes U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald a special counsel, albeit one within the Justice Department.

"It is not everything we asked for, but it comes darn close."

Democrats have said from the start that Ashcroft is too closely tied to the administration to render an impartial outcome. Investigators have questioned more than three dozen Bush administration officials.

Under questioning from Democrates, a top Justice official acknowledged during a Senate committee hearing in October that Ashcroft was being briefed on details of the investigation, including the names of people who were being interviewed, their cooperation and the general thrust of the inquiry.

The investigation was triggered in July after CIA lawyers requested that the Justice Department look into the disclosure of Plame's identity in a July 14 column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who attributed the information to "two senior administration officials."

Plame is married to retired Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been sent by the CIA to look into reports that Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear-weapons fuel from Niger.

Wilson reported that he found nothing to substantiate the charge.

He later wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times criticizing Bush for mentioning the Niger connection in his 2003 State of the Union address to justify attacking Iraq.

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