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FBI opens probe of Bush staff on CIA leak
( 2003-10-01 10:48) (Agencies)

The FBI began a full-scale criminal investigation Tuesday into whether White House officials illegally leaked the identity of an undercover CIA officer, and President Bush ordered his staff to cooperate with the first major probe of his administration.

Democrats demanded the appointment of a special outside counsel but Bush resisted. "I'm absolutely confident that the Justice Department can do a good job," he said on a re-election fund-raising stop in Chicago.

"If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it and we'll take the appropriate action," Bush said. "And this investigation is a good thing."

Democratic leaders said Attorney General John Ashcroft was too close to the White House to conduct an impartial investigation. "We don't have confidence in John Ashcroft ... and we know without a doubt that somebody broke the federal law," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "If there ever was a case for the appointment of a special counsel, this is it."

With pressure building, the Justice Department alerted the White House late Monday of the decision to move from a preliminary inquiry into a full investigation, a step rarely taken with complaints involving leaks of classified information.

The investigation is aimed at finding who leaked the name of the CIA operative, possibly in an attempt to punish the officer's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who had accused the administration of manipulating intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.

Most White House employees discovered the probe was under way when they turned on their computers and found an e-mail timed at 8:46 a.m. that said: PLEASE READ: Important Message From Counsel's Office. It alerted the staff to keep all documents that could be related to the investigation.

"I want to know the truth," Bush said. Anyone with information, inside or outside the administration, should step forward, he said.

Although Bush said he welcomed the investigation, it was an embarrassing development for a president who promised to bring integrity and leadership to the White House after years of Republican criticism of the Clinton administration.

While the administration appeared cool toward naming a special counsel, Ashcroft has not ruled out that possibility, a senior law enforcement official said.

That decision will depend on a number of factors, such as whether a suspect is identified who presents a potential conflict for the Justice Department. For now, the investigation is being done by FBI agents in the counterintelligence division, based at the FBI Washington field office, and overseen by 11 career prosecutors in the counterespionage section of the Justice Department's criminal division.

In a follow-up staff message late Tuesday, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales ordered the preservation of any documents such as phone logs, memos, notes and calendar entries from Feb. 1, 2002, and later that relate to Wilson, his fact-finding trip to Africa in February 2002 and his wife's purported relationship with the CIA and any contacts with the anyone in the news media about those subjects.

In particular, Gonzales cited any contacts with columnist Robert Novak and Timothy M. Phelps, Washington bureau chief for Newsday newspaper, and Knut Royce, a staff writer for the paper.

"You must preserve all documents relating, in any way, directly or indirectly, to these subjects, even if there could be a question whether the document would be a presidential or federal record or even if its destruction might otherwise be permitted," Gonzales said.

Newsday Editor Howard Schneider said Tuesday evening his newspaper has had no contact with the White House or Justice Department about the memo. He said, however, that Newsday was probably singled out because the newspaper was the first to report that a CIA officer revealed in a Novak column was an undercover operative.

Republicans said Democrats were playing politics. "Surprise, surprise, they are calling for a special counsel. My goodness," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said. "It must be in their political handbook, their campaign handbook."

Democrats tried to attach a resolution calling for a special counsel to a spending bill for the District of Columbia but Republicans ruled it was not relevant.

Federal law prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of a covert agent's name, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The CIA officer's name was published in July by Novak, who said he based his report on two senior administration officials.

Ashcroft, at a news conference, said the CIA also had been instructed to tell employees to preserve relevant information.

"Such requests are standard procedures in investigations of this type," Ashcroft said. He declined to say why he hadn't sought an outside investigation. "Because of an ongoing investigation of criminal violations, I will not be making any further comment at this time," Ashcroft said.

News executives expressed concern that the investigation could lead to subpoenas of reporters' notes and phone records and the journalists themselves. "The question really comes down to whether there are other ways to do this that do less damage to the idea of the First Amendment, said Bill Felber, editor of The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, who handles freedom of information issues for the Associated Press Managing Editors. "This ought to be last resort, not a first resort."

Bush spent the day in Chicago and Cincinnati raising money for his re-election campaign.

"Leaks of classified information are a bad thing ... There's too much leaking in Washington," he said. "I want to know who the leakers are."

A day earlier, spokesman Scott McClellan said it was "ridiculous" to suggest Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, had played any role in disclosing the name of the CIA officer, who is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

It was Wilson who traveled to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations of uranium sales to Iraq. He concluded the allegations were not credible.

Wilson said Monday, referring to the leaking of his wife's name, that people in whom he had confidence have "indicated to me that he (Rove), at a minimum, condoned it and certainly did nothing to put a stop to it for a week after it was out there." In an interview with ABC's "Nightline," Wilson said he would tell the FBI, if asked, the names of "everybody who called me and told me" about conversations with Rove.

The focus on Rove brought an odd twist to Bush's travels. When the president boarded Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, he walked up the steps and waved and not a single camera followed. He looked perplexed. All lenses were trained on Rove at the bottom of the steps.

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