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Leak Investigation Spreads to State and Defense Departments

Employees receive the same order as the CIA and White House to preserve key materials.

October 03, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Investigators widened the criminal investigation Thursday into the illegal "outing" of a CIA operative to include the departments of State and Defense, even as the White House tried to narrow the scope of the growing scandal.

Justice Department officials formally notified State and Defense department employees to preserve all materials related to the case, in which administration officials are accused of leaking the operative's identity in an effort to discredit her husband, an ex-diplomat who publicly questioned the Bush administration policy on Iraq. The operative was named in a syndicated column in July.

The preservation order to State and Defense comes two days after identical instructions were sent to the White House and the CIA.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "to my knowledge," the FBI had not yet gone further and interviewed any White House officials or subpoenaed documents.

White House officials, meanwhile, worked to contain the potential damage by defining the allegations narrowly.

McClellan accused critics of "moving the goal posts" in the scandal, saying the allegations should focus only on whether classified information was leaked -- and not on whether White House officials spoke to reporters about it later in an effort to capitalize on the leak.

"The subject of this investigation is whether someone leaked classified information," McClellan said with unusual testiness. "Yesterday some of the questions began to move the goal post and focus on other issues that are not the subject of this investigation."

McClellan appeared to be referring to news reports and comments by the former diplomat, Joseph C. Wilson IV, suggesting that White House officials phoned reporters to encourage more stories after the initial leak was published.

Disclosing classified information such as the identity of an undercover CIA operative generally is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But while the leak may be illegal, giving the leak wider dissemination by calling attention to it is not.

By making the distinction, McClellan appeared to be acknowledging that White House officials may indeed have called attention to Robert Novak's column, in which the operative was identified. Regardless, McClellan contended that Wilson and others are "seeking partisan political advantage.''

Wilson responded angrily to McClellan's language.

"I don't know what his point is. Is it abominable to be peddling a story based on a violation of law? Sure it is," Wilson said. "Is it 'moving the goal posts' to point that out? I don't think so."

The accusations that White House officials "piled on" and tried to use the leak to discredit Wilson pose two risks for the White House.

First, the scandal could implicate a larger swath of administration officials than those responsible for the initial leak. And second, it could expose the White House staff as being involved in the kind of underhanded partisan politics that President Bush frequently denounces.

"This is a president who has a reputation for being decent, honest, a down-to-earth, good guy. And anything that suggests that he or his senior staff are not good guys, that could cause some political fallout," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

The controversy goes back to February 2002, when at the request of the CIA, Wilson traveled to the African country of Niger to look into allegations that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium to boost a nuclear weapons program. He returned to report that the allegations appeared untrue.

However, administration officials continued to repeat the Niger allegation, and Bush included it in his State of the Union address. In July, after the war had begun, Wilson went public, writing an opinion article in the New York Times accusing the administration of "twisting" the evidence on Iraq's alleged weapons programs.

Eight days later, columnist Novak revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative and attributed the information to two senior administration officials.

The political risks to the president were clear in a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken this week after the FBI investigation was announced. It found that a majority of Americans -- 81% -- consider the leak allegations "serious." Seventy-two percent said they believe it likely that someone in the White House is responsible.

That may be one reason White House officials are trying to separate the criminal investigation from the wider political implications.

"It's a political problem if the public believes that the White House was trying to muscle or intimidate or punish Wilson for his political views or his [Iraq] assessment," Rothenberg said. "I think many people would regard that behavior as inappropriate and heavy-handed. It's one thing to disagree with policy, but another thing to try to discredit somebody in a nasty, back-handed way simply because they disagreed with your assessment of Iraq."

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