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Bush Consults With Lawyer Over Leak Investigation

The president had the conversation in case he needs to hire an attorney as a grand jury probes the illegal disclosure of a CIA agent's name.

June 03, 2004|Peter Wallsten and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush has consulted with a private attorney in case he needed to retain a lawyer in connection with the grand jury investigation into whether anyone in the White House illegally leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent.

White House officials would not say what prompted Bush to seek the outside advice or whether he had been asked to appear before the grand jury, but a spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that the recent discussion with Washington attorney James Sharp was related to the leak inquiry and that "in the event the president needs his advice, he'd retain him."

"The president has said that leaking of classified information is a very serious matter, that everyone should cooperate, and the president would include himself in that," said spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

Buchan declined to say whether Bush met in person with Sharp or if the conversation took place over the phone.

Asked when the discussion had occurred, she said, "Recently," declining again to offer specifics.

There has been no indication that Bush is a target in the 5-month-old investigation into the alleged "outing" of CIA operative Valerie Plame, nor has anyone suggested that the president was privy to any plan to disseminate classified information.

But the move by Bush to reach out to an outside lawyer, first reported Wednesday on the "CBS Evening News," was the first indication that the probe could extend beyond White House staff to the highest levels, as prosecutors try to find who might have slipped Plame's name to news reporters.

Exposing the identity of an undercover CIA employee is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Buchan referred questions about any potential grand jury appearance by Bush to the Justice Department. A spokesman for Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor in Chicago handling the investigation, declined comment.

Attempts to reach Sharp, an Oklahoma native and former assistant U.S. attorney who has built a low-profile white-collar defense practice in Washington, were unsuccessful.

The case has been a sensitive topic for Bush, who campaigned in 2000 on restoring the "honor and dignity" of the presidency after years of investigations into President Clinton's land dealings and his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Democrats have sought to use the spy leak case to taint Bush's image.

The Democratic National Committee issued a statement Wednesday calling on Bush to be forthcoming. "Bush shouldn't drag the country through grand juries and legal maneuvering," said DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera. "President Bush should come forward with what he knows and come clean with the American people."

Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, has charged that his wife was exposed by the administration as payback for an article he wrote for the op-ed page of the New York Times, challenging the president's claim in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought "significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Wilson, an Africa expert who traveled to Niger at the CIA's request to investigate that claim, concluded that it was not true.

Plame's identity was reported July 14 -- eight days after Wilson's article appeared -- in a syndicated newspaper column by Robert Novak.

Up to now, most experts thought the grand jury investigation was focusing on West Wing staffers and steering clear of the Oval Office.

Attorneys close to the case but unfamiliar with Fitzgerald's plans said Wednesday they viewed Bush's consultation with a private attorney as a clue that the prosecutor intended to question the president in some fashion. Fitzgerald could consider it necessary to interview Bush to have a record under oath of his view of events surrounding the leak, the lawyers said.

"It is hard for me to imagine that Pat Fitzgerald is going to be going aggressively after the president," one Washington lawyer said. "My guess is that he feels a need to conduct an interview because he needs to be in a position to say, 'I have done everything that could be done.'

"If he closes the case without an indictment and has not interviewed the president, he is going to be criticized," the lawyer added. "I just think it is something you would need to do under the circumstances."

One Washington criminal defense lawyer with experience representing politicians said Bush's decision to consult a private attorney most likely signaled that he would appear before the grand jury in some capacity -- perhaps for an informal interview, if not testifying under oath.

In that case, said Stanley Brand, former chief counsel to the House of Representatives, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales would not be permitted to represent Bush -- just as Clinton had to secure outside counsel during the Lewinsky scandal.

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