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Prosecutors Question Bush on Leak of Agent's Name

June 25, 2004|Edwin Chen and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush was questioned for more than an hour Thursday by federal prosecutors seeking to identify the senior administration official who leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to reporters, the White House disclosed.

With a private attorney at his side, the president met with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney from Chicago, and his legal team in the Oval Office, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

McClellan described the session as an "interview" and said Bush was not under oath. He declined to say whether the session had been recorded and referred all questions to the Justice Department, citing the "ongoing investigation."

Since September, federal investigators have been questioning White House officials in an effort to determine who identified Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative and the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, to syndicated columnist Robert Novak and other reporters. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to intentionally divulge the identity of an undercover CIA employee.

"The leaking of classified information is a very serious matter. The president directed the White House to cooperate fully with those in charge of the investigation," McClellan said.

Bush's lawyer, James Sharp, a highly regarded criminal defense attorney in Washington, did not return phone calls Thursday. A spokesman for Fitzgerald declined to comment.

The questioning of Bush, among other evidence, suggests that Fitzgerald is close to wrapping up the investigation. Fitzgerald has already questioned Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales.

Fitzgerald is also attempting to subpoena reporters to testify before a grand jury about their coverage of the leaks -- a tactic that under Justice Department guidelines is permitted only as a last resort.

Time magazine and the NBC television network are fighting the subpoena requests, and a hearing is set for July 8 in federal court in Washington.

Fitzgerald took over the investigation in December after Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest in what has become a politically charged case.

Wilson, a former top diplomat in Baghdad, has alleged that the leak was an attempt by the Bush administration to retaliate after he disputed, in a New York Times op-ed article July 6, the president's assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to obtain "significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

At the CIA's request, Wilson, who also had served as an ambassador to several African nations, traveled to Niger and determined that the statement was untrue.

Eight days after Wilson's article appeared, Novak's column identified Plame as a CIA employee and said she had had a role in her husband being sent to Niger -- a contention Wilson says is untrue.

The administration has since backed away from the statement about Iraq's pursuit of uranium from Africa.

Previously, McClellan had told reporters that the president expected everyone in his administration to "adhere to the highest standards of conduct," adding, "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration."

This week, the Washington Post reported that one of its reporters had voluntarily answered questions from Fitzgerald about the reporter's telephone conversations with Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in July.

The reporter, Glenn Kessler, said Libby did not mention Plame, Wilson or Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in their conversations, according to the Post, which said Kessler agreed to answer questions at Libby's urging.

In his recently published memoir, Wilson speculated that Libby was "quite possibly the person who exposed my wife's identity."

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