Justice probe not limited to White House, spy agency

Friday, October 3, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The federal investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's name expanded Thursday beyond the White House and the spy agency to other parts of the government with access to the officer's classified identity.

The Justice Department sent "do not destroy" letters to the Defense and State departments requesting preservation of phone logs, e-mails and other documents that could become evidence in the inquiry, senior law enforcement officials said.

"We will cooperate fully," said State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman. Two Defense Department officials said they had been told earlier to expect such a letter

The goal for investigators is to cast as wide a net as possible for anyone who might have leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operations officer who has served overseas. Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has accused the Bush administration of selective use of intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity, which first appeared in a July 14 column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak and later was reported by Newsday. The probe is focused on finding the leaker, not on prosecuting those who reported her name, officials say.

Justice Department policy is to consider seeking subpoenas of reporters only as a last resort, officials say.

"When it comes to the media, there are a lot of safeguards built into the system," said FBI spokeswoman Susan Whitson.

Attorney General John Ashcroft would have to personally OK subpoenas for reporters' notes or phone records.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that, as far as he knew, no White House staffers had been interviewed by the FBI and no subpoenas for records or documents had been received. McClellan promised to disclose any such subpoenas received by the White House, if the Justice Department did not object.

On Capitol Hill, the Democratic drumbeat continued for Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to run the investigation. Democrats say someone outside the Justice Department could conduct a more thorough investigation because that person would not have political ties to the Bush administration.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., took it a step further by urging Ashcroft to step aside from the probe, citing numerous political ties between Justice Department officials and the White House.

Schumer noted that Ashcroft stepped aside in the 2001 probe of former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., because Torricelli had campaigned against Ashcroft in the attorney general's unsuccessful bid for re-election as a senator from Missouri in 2000.

"It is just as inappropriate for Mr. Ashcroft to do any work on this matter," Schumer said.

Justice Department officials say Ashcroft has not foreclosed any option in the investigation but continues to have confidence in career prosecutors and FBI agents to handle it.

Without identifying anyone, McClellan said that unidentified foes of the White House "are looking through the lens of political opportunism" to fan the controversy.

"There are some that are seeking partisan political advantage," he said. "I don't need to go into names. We all know who they are."

The investigation, meanwhile, remained in its early stages. The FBI's team of about a half-dozen agents has put together an investigative strategy and set up a command structure that includes both Director Robert Mueller and Deputy Director Bruce Gebhardt.

Letters urging evidence to be preserved are routinely sent to any government agency that might have information in a national security investigation, law enforcement officials said.

Officials at the State Department might have known of Plame's identity because she was probably affiliated with one or more U.S. embassies overseas. The Defense Department is a key part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus that frequently works with the CIA.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: