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Ashcroft recused self from investigation { December 31 2003 }

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December 31, 2003
Special Counsel Is Named to Head Inquiry on C.I.A. Leak

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 Attorney General John Ashcroft disqualified himself on Tuesday from any involvement in the investigation into whether Bush administration officials illegally disclosed the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer. At the same time, the Justice Department brought in a special counsel to lead the politically charged case.

The two steps suggested that the three-month-old investigation had reached a crucial juncture at which Mr. Ashcroft's continued involvement was considered politically untenable, officials said. Leading Democrats had pushed for months for Mr. Ashcroft to remove himself from the case because of his close ties to the White House, but he had consistently resisted those demands until Tuesday.

Federal investigators have been examining whether officials at the White House or in other federal offices leaked the identity of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame, to Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist. Mr. Novak included the information in a column published last July.

The White House has denied that top officials there, including the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, had any role in leaking the information to Mr. Novak. The Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewed Mr. Rove in October, officials said, and his relationship to the attorney general has been a source of concern for some Justice Department officials because he was a paid adviser to Mr. Ashcroft on several of Mr. Ashcroft's political campaigns in Missouri.

James B. Comey Jr., a former Manhattan prosecutor who was installed just three weeks ago as deputy attorney general, will oversee the investigation following Mr. Ashcroft's withdrawal. His first decision in that role was to name Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is the United States attorney in Chicago and is a friend and former colleague of Mr. Comey's, as a special counsel who will direct the investigation.

"The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation," Mr. Comey said in announcing the decision at a news conference, which Mr. Ashcroft did not attend. "I agree with that judgment. And I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation."

Mr. Comey added that the attorney general did not believe that he had a conflict of interest that would have prevented him from fairly overseeing the case. "The issue that he was concerned about was one of appearance, Mr. Comey said.

White House officials said that President Bush was informed of the decision several hours before Mr. Comey formally announced it but that the White House played no role in it. Indeed, the decision appeared to surprise both political figures in the White House and law enforcement officials at the Justice Department, leaving many to speculate about what led Mr. Ashcroft to disqualify himself from the case now after months of political pressure.

Some officials suggested that the move was driven largely by political factors and that the Democrats' near-constant criticism over the pace of the investigation and Mr. Ashcroft's role in it could hurt Mr. Bush as he campaigns for re-election next year. By this theory, Mr. Comey's confirmation as deputy attorney general three weeks ago may have allowed Mr. Ashcroft a relatively smooth way by which to extricate himself from the case.

"The Justice Department and Ashcroft in particular have been in an impossible situation," said one White House adviser. "Unless he finds everybody at the White House guilty, his critics will charge that he was soft."

But some Democrats said they believed that Mr. Ashcroft's decision was evidence that the F.B.I.'s investigation into the leak could be moving closer to key White House personnel with whom the attorney general is closely aligned.

The Justice Department's investigation centers on accusations that unnamed Bush administration officials disclosed the identity of Ms. Plame to Mr. Novak last summer in order to punish the C.I.A. officer's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, for his criticism of Mr. Bush's policies in Iraq.

Days before his wife's role with the Central Intelligence Agency was disclosed, Mr. Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times saying that a government fact-finding trip he took to Niger in 2002 found nothing to substantiate the accusation that Iraq had imported uranium ore from Niger. In his State of the Union address in January, Mr. Bush said Iraq had been seeking to buy uranium in Africa, although he did not specifically mention Niger.

Disclosing the identity of a covert C.I.A. officer is a felony under federal law.

Republicans were largely silent on Mr. Ashcroft's decision, but Democrats in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail were quick to praise it, although some saw it as belated.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who led the push for Mr. Ashcroft's withdrawal and the appointment of an outside counsel, said, "This isn't everything that I asked for, but it's close."

On the appointment of Mr. Fitzgerald to lead the investigation, Mr. Schumer said: "I would have preferred to have someone outside the government altogether, but given Fitzgerald's reputation for integrity and ability similar to Comey's the glass is three-quarters full."

Howard Dean, who leads in polls for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that while he was encouraged by Mr. Ashcroft's decision, "it is too little, too late."

Dr. Dean suggested that because Mr. Comey and Mr. Fitzgerald are political appointees named to their jobs by Mr. Bush, the Justice Department should still appoint an outside counsel to handle the case.

In the last three months, the leak investigation has been run out of the Justice Department by John Dion, a career lawyer who leads the department's counterespionage unit. While Mr. Ashcroft has been briefed occasionally on the progress of the investigation, Justice Department officials have stressed that the unfettered authority of Mr. Dion and his staff were critical to ensuring the fairness and independence of the investigation.

Mr. Comey, however, left open the question of whether Mr. Dion and other career prosecutors in his unit would remain on the case. He said that decision will be left entirely to Mr. Fitzgerald, but he added, "I wouldn't be surprised if he thought maybe he ought to keep some or all of the career folks involved."

Mr. Comey, who earned a reputation in Manhattan as an independent prosecutor on corporate crime and other high-profile criminal matters, said that he was giving Mr. Fitzgerald broad authority to pursue the investigation and that he would be allowed to issue subpoenas and grant immunity on his own authority.

"I told him that my mandate to him was very simple," Mr. Comey related. "Follow the facts wherever they lead, and do the right thing at all times. And that's something, if you know this guy, is not something I even needed to tell him."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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