WASHINGTON — The White House struggled Monday to fend off pressure for an external probe into whether administration officials deliberately -- and illegally -- "outed" an undercover CIA agent in retribution for her husband's criticism of President Bush's prewar claims about Iraq.
Top administration officials, including political advisor Karl Rove, issued denials Monday that they were behind the disclosure of the woman's identity, even while the Justice Department said it had launched a preliminary investigation and senior Democrats on Capitol Hill demanded the appointment of a special counsel.
The issue has metastasized into a mini-scandal with such speed that many in Washington, including the White House, appear to have been caught off-guard.
The allegations suddenly threatened to pose a major problem for an administration that prides itself on avoiding the culture of leaks and swirling criminal probes that waylaid its predecessor on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It is a classic Washington whodunit, with speculation swirling around the Beltway on Monday over the identities of the "two senior administration officials" who passed the CIA officer's name to conservative columnist Robert Novak.
But the time-honored game of guessing reporters' sources has higher stakes in this case because it centers on the White House's prewar claims about Iraq's nuclear program, appears to have cost a CIA operative her clandestine career, and the culprits, if caught, could face up to 10 years in prison.
"My sense is this was not casually done, this was retaliation," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has jurisdiction over the matter.
Though most investigations of leaks fizzle like " 'Casablanca' with a rounding-up of the usual suspects," Harman said, "I think this one is not going to die. I think there's enormous interest. If what's alleged here actually happened, it was wrong, it was a violation of law, and an example has to be set."
What actually happened is still emerging, but it was triggered by an opinion piece written in early July by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The article, printed July 6 in the New York Times, questioned President Bush's assertion that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.
Wilson disclosed that a year earlier he had traveled to Niger on an assignment for the CIA to investigate those uranium allegations and found them baseless. The piece prompted questions that still persist about why the administration made such claims amid evidence that they were unfounded.
Eight days later, syndicated columnist Novak wrote a piece defending the White House and arguing that Wilson's trip to Niger was done not at the behest of the administration but was arranged by his wife, Valerie Plame, "an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."
The disclosure of her name and job attracted little attention at the time. The CIA, as obligated by law, referred the leak to the Justice Department later in July. But it didn't complete the paperwork until mid-September. It was the disclosure of the completed referral over the weekend that triggered the uproar.
By some accounts, the administration approached a number of news organizations in July, dangling details on Wilson's wife's position at the agency. The Washington Post on Sunday quoted "an administration aide" as saying that six reporters received cold calls from administration officials.
The Post quoted Wilson as saying that NBC's Andrea Mitchell got one of the calls. "I would not discuss sources," Mitchell said when asked about that Monday.
But speaking on condition of anonymity, one top political and communications strategist close to the White House expressed skepticism that any senior White House officials leaked the information.
"It's not how anybody leaks," the strategist said. "You know us. We're pros. If you want to leak, you call one reporter."
On CNN, where Novak serves as a commentator, he said Monday, "Nobody in the White House called me to leak me this." Instead, Novak said he was interviewing a "senior administration official" who told him of Wilson's wife's identity, and that he confirmed it with another administration source.
Observers in Washington have expressed bafflement that administration officials would play such high-risk politics for such dubious payback: gambling that identifying the wife of a retired diplomat would somehow taint the diplomat's report throwing cold water on the uranium allegations. But Wilson remains convinced that the leak was designed to punish him.
"That's just purely reprehensible," he said in an interview Monday. He said he believes the Bush White House was "intimately involved in this."
"At the minimum, Karl Rove condoned it after the fact, because he continued to speak about it for days afterward as if my wife were fair game," he said.