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Probe exposing cia identity { September 29 2003 }

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Bush Aides Say They'll Cooperate With Probe Into Intelligence Leak

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2003; Page A01

President Bush's aides promised yesterday to cooperate with a Justice Department inquiry into an administration leak that exposed the identity of a CIA operative, but Democrats charged that the administration cannot credibly investigate itself and called for an independent probe.

White House officials said they would turn over phone logs if the Justice Department asked them to. But the aides said Bush has no plans to ask his staff members whether they played a role in revealing the name of an undercover officer who is married to former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, one of the most visible critics of Bush's handling of intelligence about Iraq.

An administration official told The Washington Post on Saturday that two White House officials leaked the information to selected journalists to discredit Wilson. The leak could constitute a federal crime, and intelligence officials said it might have endangered confidential sources who had aided the operative throughout her career. CIA Director George J. Tenet has asked the Justice Department to investigate how the leak occurred.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on "Fox News Sunday" that she knew "nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate."

She also said the White House would leave the probe in the hands of the Justice Department, calling it the "appropriate channels now."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Justice Department has requested no information so far. "Of course, we would always cooperate with the Department of Justice in a matter like this," he said.

Asked about the possibility of an internal White House investigation, McClellan said, "I'm not aware of any information that has come to our attention beyond the anonymous media sources to suggest there's anything to White House involvement."

The controversy erupted over the weekend, when administration officials reported that Tenet sent the Justice Department a letter raising questions about whether federal law was broken when the operative, Valerie Plame, was exposed. She was named in a column by Robert D. Novak that ran July 14 in The Post and other newspapers.

CIA officials approached the Justice Department about a possible investigation within a week of the column's publication. Tenet's letter was delivered more recently.

The department is determining whether a formal investigation is warranted, officials said. The officials said they did not know how long that would take.

Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates seized on the investigation as a new vulnerability for Bush. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who has been pushing the FBI to pursue the matter for two months, said that if "something this sensitive is done under the wing of any direct appointees, at the very minimum, it's not going to have the appearance of fairness and thoroughness."

From the presidential campaign trail in New Hampshire, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) called it "a natural conflict of interest" for Justice Department appointees to investigate their superiors, and said congressional committees should step in to try to determine what happened.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean said Attorney General John D. Ashcroft should play no role in the investigation and should turn it over to the Justice Department's inspector general, who operates independently of political appointees. "President Bush came into office promising to bring honor and integrity to the White House," Dean said. "It's time for accountability."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) said the investigation "must be conducted by an independent, nonpartisan counsel."

Although the Independent Counsel Act, created after the Watergate abuses, expired in 1999, the attorney general can appoint a special counsel to investigate the president and other top government officials. Special counsels have less independence from the attorney general, but proponents of the system said that makes them more accountable.

More specific details about the controversy emerged yesterday. Wilson said in a telephone interview that four reporters from three television networks called him in July and told him that White House officials had contacted them to encourage stories that would include his wife's identity.

Novak attributed his account to "two senior administration officials." An administration aide told The Post on Saturday that the two White House officials had cold-called at least six Washington journalists and identified Wilson's wife.

She is a case officer in the CIA's clandestine service and works as an analyst on weapons of mass destruction. Novak published her maiden name, Plame, which she had used overseas and has not been using publicly. Intelligence sources said top officials at the agency were very concerned about the disclosure because it could allow foreign intelligence services to track down some of her former contacts and lead to the exposure of agents.

The disclosure could have broken more than one law. In addition to the federal law prohibiting the identification of a covert officer, officials with high-level national security clearance sign nondisclosure agreements, with penalties for revealing classified information.

Wilson had touched off perhaps the most searing controversy of this administration by saying he had determined on a mission to Niger last year that there was no clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium ore for possible use in a nuclear weapon.

His statement led to a retraction by the White House, and bolstered Democrats' contention that Bush had exaggerated intelligence to build a case against Iraq. The yellowcake allegation became known as "the 16 words" after Bush said in his State of the Union address in January that the British government had learned that Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

An administration official said the leaks were "simply for revenge" for the trouble Wilson had caused Bush.

Wilson said that in the week after the Novak column appeared, several journalists told him that the White House was trying to call attention to his wife, apparently hoping to undermine his credibility by implying he had received the Niger assignment only because his wife had suggested the mission and recommended him for the job.

"Each of the reporters quoted the White House official as using some variation on, 'The real story isn't the 16 words. The real story is Wilson and his wife,' " Wilson said. "The time frame led me to deduce that the White House was continuing to try to push this story."

Wilson identified one of the reporters as Andrea Mitchell of NBC News. Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.

Wilson has suggested publicly that Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, was the one who broke his wife's cover. McClellan has called that "totally ridiculous" and "not true."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on ABC's "This Week" program: "The CIA has an obligation, when they believe somebody who is undercover was outed, so to speak, has an obligation to ask the Justice Department to look into it. But other than that, I don't know anything about the matter."

Democrats also questioned why Bush's aides had seemed to show little interest in the disclosure before the CIA request was made public. McClellan was asked about the Novak column during briefings on July 22 and Sept. 16. He replied that no one in the White House would have been authorized to reveal the operative's name and that he had no information to suggest White House involvement.

Democrats e-mailed a quotation from former president George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, who said in 1999 at the dedication of the agency's new headquarters that those who expose the names of intelligence sources are "the most insidious of traitors."

Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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