WASHINGTON -- White House officials began combing telephone logs and other records Wednesday while the FBI assembled senior agents for the politically delicate task of questioning senior members of President Bush's staff about the leak of a CIA undercover officer's identity.
The FBI's first task will be to determine how many government officials were privy to the officer's identity and knew it was classified, a number that could be in the hundreds.
Suddenly besieged by questions on a subject that had lain dormant for months, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that no investigators had yet sought to interview any staff members. Nor, he said, had staffers gone to the Justice Department with information, as Bush had urged any with information to do.
In Congress, Democrats and Republicans sparred over whether a special counsel should be appointed to investigate. Democrats contend an agency headed by Bush appointees cannot adequately investigate the administration, a claim Republicans have labeled politically motivated.
Overseeing the investigation is John Dion, a 30-year career prosecutor who has headed the counterespionage section at the Justice Department since 2002. FBI agents from the counterintelligence and inspections division, and from the Washington field office, will do the legwork.
With the probe in its early stages, the White House was focused on ensuring that documents, e-mails, phone logs and other potential pieces of evidence were being preserved.
The FBI, which can use grand jury subpoenas to compel disclosure of any evidence, also has regularly used polygraph tests in investigations involving classified information. Asked if White House staff members would submit to lie detector tests if requested, McClellan called the question "hypothetical."
"We will cooperate fully with the investigation and make sure that we preserve the integrity of the investigation," he said.
Investigators want to find out who leaked the name of a CIA officer married to former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who had accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq. The officer's name, Valerie Plame, first appeared in a July 14 story by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, and she later was identified by Newsday as an undercover officer.
The White House and the Republican National Committee turned up the heat Wednesday on Wilson. The GOP's communication office highlighted remarks in which Wilson backtracked from his original assertion that Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, was responsible for the leak.
McClellan said that Wilson "has said a lot of things and then backed away from what he said. So I think part of your role," he told reporters, "is to do some further questioning there."
Novak, in a column published Wednesday, wrote that he discovered Plame's identity when talking with a senior administration official about why Wilson, who had been part of President Clinton's National Security Council, had been tasked with investigating allegations that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger.
A second official confirmed that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer, Novak wrote, adding that the CIA itself never suggested to him that publication of her name would endanger anyone. Novak also wrote that the officer's identity was widely known in Washington.
One question for the FBI to answer is how many people in the government did possess that knowledge.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno, in June 2000 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the pool of potential leakers in any administration often is extremely large.
"Almost inevitably, we find that the universe of individuals with authorized access to the disclosed information is so large as to render impracticable further efforts to identify the leaker," Reno said. "Almost all leak investigations are closed without having identified a suspect."
Justice Department guidelines allow for journalists to be subpoenaed only on rare occasions, after all reasonable attempts are made to obtain the information from other sources.
"The prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter's ability to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues," the guidelines say
Newsday Editor Howard Schneider said the newspaper had not been contacted by the Justice Department and that its reporters were continuing to pursue the leak story.
On Capitol Hill, a meeting was canceled Wednesday between Wilson and House Democrats, who said having him attend could give greater weight to Republican claims that the controversy is political.
Some Democrats repeated calls for Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to handle the probe independently, an option that remains open.
An ABC-Washington Post poll found 69 percent of Americans believe a special counsel should be appointed, including 52 percent of Republicans. A substantial majority, 72 percent, said it's likely that someone in the White House leaked the classified information, but only 34 percent think it's likely Bush knew about the leak beforehand.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the White House order to preserve relevant documents should have been done sooner, especially since the Justice Department's career prosecutors decided a full investigation was warranted last Friday.
"Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give the culprit time to destroy the evidence," Schumer said.
McClellan defended the administration's failure to take action when the CIA officer's name first appeared in Novak's column in July.
"There was no information brought to our attention beyond an anonymous source in media reports to suggest that there was White House involvement," he said.
Justice Department officials say they received a CIA "crime report" about possible disclosure of classified information soon after Novak's column, then sent the agency a list of 11 standard questions to answer about the case. Those answers were received last week, leading to the decision to begin a probe.