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Cia probe widens

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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10/1/03 ]

Probe in leak of CIA widens

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department announced a full-scale criminal investigation Tuesday into allegations that White House officials deliberately exposed the identity of an undercover CIA agent after her husband publicly criticized President Bush's policy toward Iraq.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, working with the FBI, opened the investigation Friday at the request of the CIA.

Bush said he had no knowledge of the disclosure of the agent's identity to selected members of the media, and the president ordered his staff to cooperate with the investigation.

"I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information,'' Bush told reporters traveling with him in Chicago. "If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of."

Bush defended Ashcroft's decision to investigate the matter through the Justice Department instead of appointing an independent special counsel, as Democrats have urged.

"I'm absolutely confident that the Justice Department will do a very good job," Bush said.

Democrats, however, stepped up their calls for an independent investigation.

"We don't have confidence in John Ashcroft,'' Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. "There is always going to be a cloud hanging over whether or not this Justice Department, run by John Ashcroft, will ever have the objectivity and the independence to do the kind of investigation required."

In a prepared statement, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, said, "The failure to name special counsel taints this investigation from the outset.''

Bush appeals to media

Bush directed White House staff members to provide the Justice Department with any information relating to the investigation. He also appealed to others outside his administration, gesturing toward reporters at one point, to do the same.

"If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true and get on about the business,'' Bush said.

At issue are allegations, published in The Washington Post over the weekend, that at least two senior White House officials revealed to selected journalists in July that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife was a covert CIA operative.

The revelations came after Wilson wrote an editorial criticizing Bush's claims that Iraq had sought nuclear weapons fuel in Niger. Wilson had traveled there in 2002 to investigate the claims.

Disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA agent is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Such disclosures could endanger the operative and the operative's contacts, undercut U.S. intelligence gathering and scuttle the operative's career.

Leak given to Novak

The CIA is required by law to seek a Justice Department inquiry into allegations of such a breach of security.

For the department to launch a full investigation, the CIA must first demonstrate sufficient reasons for an inquiry, including details on the CIA employee who has been compromised and the nature of the security breach.

That process began in earnest last week, Ashcroft said, 2 1/2 months after conservative columnist Robert Novak first published the leak, naming Wilson's wife. Novak said he based his report on information from two senior Bush administration officials.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales was notified of the investigation at 8:30 p.m. Monday. Gonzales, in turn, discussed the matter with Bush early Tuesday. Gonzales then sent a memo to White House staffers directing them not to destroy materials that might be relevant.

After receiving a Justice Department letter detailing the scope of its inquiry, Gonzales sent out a second memo at day's end, directing White House staff to retain e-mails, telephone records, computer discs, notes and diary entries relating to:

Wilson or his wife's "purported relationship" with the CIA.

Wilson's 2002 travels, on behalf of the CIA, to Niger.

Contacts with syndicated columnist Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times and reporter Knut Royce and bureau chief Timothy Phelps, both of Newsday, a Long Island newspaper.

"You must preserve all documents relating, in any way, directly or indirectly, to these subjects," Gonzales wrote, "even if there would be a question whether the document would be a presidential or federal record or even if its destruction might otherwise be permitted."

Democrats pounced on the overnight lapse between when Gonzales was notified of the investigation and when staffers were directed to retain relevant materials.

"Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. "If there were a special counsel, it is extremely doubtful that the White House would have been allowed to delay the request to preserve documents and other evidence."

McClellan dismissed the notion that staffers would have had time to destroy materials. "That's just a silly suggestion,'' he said.

Gonzales asked the Justice Department whether a memo should go out immediately Monday night, McClellan said.

"They were prepared to do so,'' McClellan said. "The Justice Department said this morning would be fine."

Lapse not explained

Ashcroft offered no explanation for the lapse between Friday, when he said the investigation began, and Monday night, when he said he notified Gonzales. Ashcroft also said no special counsel is needed.

"The prosecutors and agents who are and will be handling this investigation are career professionals with extensive experience in handling matters involving sensitive national security information and with experience relating to investigations of unauthorized disclosures of such information,'' Ashcroft said.

In addition to working directly for Bush, Ashcroft has a professional relationship, going back to 1985, with Karl Rove, Bush's political counselor.

Wilson, who had earlier suggested that Rove was the source of the leak, partly backed off that charge Monday, saying people in whom he has confidence have "indicated to me" that Rove "at a minimum condoned it and certainly did nothing to put a stop to it for a week after it was out there."

McClellan has denied allegations that Rove played a role in identifying the agent, calling the suggestion "ridiculous.''

The CIA sent Wilson to Niger in 2002 to check out allegations that Iraq had sought uranium, a potential raw material in a nuclear bomb, from Niger, which had supplied Iraq with large quantities of uranium in the past.

Wilson reported to the CIA that he could not substantiate charges of recent attempts by Iraq to acquire the uranium. CIA Director George Tenet conveyed those reservations to the White House last fall.

Several months later -- in his January State of the Union address weeks before ordering war against Iraq -- Bush repeated the assertions about the uranium, citing British intelligence sources.

After Wilson took issue publicly with the way Bush had used the intelligence to build support for the war, several news organizations reported that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative -- implying that she had played a role in his assignment to Niger -- and undercutting Wilson's credibility on the matter, punishing him for criticizing the president, or both.

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