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Bush Says Leak Probe Is Job for Justice Dept.

The president dismisses growing pressure for the appointment of a special counsel in the case.

October 01, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — President Bush said Tuesday that he welcomed a Justice Department investigation into whether White House officials illegally disclosed the identity of a CIA agent in an effort to discredit or punish her husband, an administration critic.

Bush also dismissed calls by Democrats for the appointment of a special counsel to look into the matter. Administration critics argued that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is too partisan to preside over an impartial investigation.

On a campaign fund-raising trip through the Midwest, Bush said he is "absolutely confident that the Justice Department will do a very good job."

"I want to know the truth," Bush said. "If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of."

The remarks were the president's first on the burgeoning scandal, which burst into view over the weekend when it was disclosed that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate whether senior administration officials deliberately unmasked a CIA agent married to former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of Bush's handling of intelligence before the war in Iraq.

The Justice Department said Tuesday that it was conducting a formal investigation into who leaked the agent's identity to conservative columnist Robert Novak, an apparent violation of a 1982 law designed to protect intelligence operatives.

The allegations are serious; exposing the identity of a CIA operative is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. And the charges have handed Democrats a juicy political opportunity, enabling them to accuse the hawkish Bush administration of playing fast and loose with national security.

In the Senate, a resolution sponsored by about two dozen Democrats was introduced Tuesday calling for a "fair, thorough and independent investigation into a national security breach."

Democrats took to the Senate floor to liken the leak to President Richard Nixon's enemies list and to "kneecapping" the CIA agent in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the administration's policies.

"This is not just a leak; this is a crime, plain and simple," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

The politically charged nature of the case was underscored Tuesday when Wilson, who has portrayed himself as defending the CIA career of his wife, Valerie Plame, confirmed on CNBC that he has been in contact with a number of Democratic campaigns, in particular that of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Wilson said he had donated money to Kerry's presidential campaign and is considering endorsing him, although he said he also had contributed to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000.

Wilson has agreed to meet today with Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Justice officials said they weren't ruling out the possibility of acceding to the demands for a special counsel. Some former prosecutors said they believed the facts of the case were so murky that appointing a special counsel seemed premature.

For now, the politically delicate task falls to a low-profile group of Justice professionals. The team is headed up by John Dion, chief of the counterespionage section of the department's criminal section, a 20-year spy catcher who has won department awards during Republican and Democratic administrations for his work investigating turncoats and security breaches.

"John is a very aggressive prosecutor who will call it as he sees it," said Eric Dubelier, a Washington lawyer and former federal prosecutor who worked with Dion several years ago. "He will make a decision based on the facts and the law. Then, the question will be, 'Who is the final arbiter?' "

But some members of Congress said there was already evidence that the investigation was going off-track.

They cite a heads-up the Justice Department gave the White House on Monday night that it had decided to launch a formal investigation, and that it would be sending out a letter Tuesday morning explaining which documents it wanted preserved.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House counsel's office asked whether staff should be notified immediately; the Justice officials said it could wait until the next morning.

McClellan rebuffed a question asking whether the evening phone call could be seen as advance warning, calling it a "silly suggestion."

Schumer said the notice created an opportunity for mischief, essentially giving White House staff an opportunity overnight to destroy evidence.

"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," Schumer said. "After all, every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence."

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