The White House yesterday was flooded with questions from reporters about what could be a major embarrassment for George W. Bush's presidency. The story centers on an alleged leak by administration officials of secret information aimed at intimidating a key critic of the Iraq war.
Washington, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The story first surfaced in the summer, and little was made of it.
Now, however, it is the talk of Washington.
Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan spent most of his daily briefing parrying questions about allegations that administration officials -- in violation of the law -- leaked the identity of an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, in an apparent bid to intimidate a key critic of the Iraq war, and to prevent other critics from coming forward.
McClellan denies charges that Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove, was behind the leak: "I made it very clear that if something like this happened, the president believes the Department of Justice should look into it and pursue it to the fullest extent. Leaking classified information, particularly of this nature, is a very serious matter."
The naming of the intelligence officer last July by a syndicated newspaper columnist came shortly after the officer's husband -- Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Gambon -- undermined Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa.
In a scathing article in "The New York Times," Wilson wondered how the claim that Iraq sought uranium in Niger had made it into Bush's State of the Union address last January. On behalf of the CIA, Wilson had led a probe into that claim in Niger last year, only to conclude that it was likely false.
The administration then backed away from the claim, acknowledging a mix-up had taken place.
Shortly thereafter, the leak appeared in a story written by noted conservative political columnist Robert Novak. But little was made of it -- that is, until now.
On 28 September, "The Washington Post" -- quoting unidentified government sources -- said the CIA has written to the Justice Department to investigate the matter, saying federal law may have been violated.
"The Washington Post" article cited administration sources as saying the leak was intended purely as "revenge" against Wilson for his criticism.
The story immediately sparked cries of outrage from opposition Democrats, many of whom said the leak could endanger Wilson's wife, an expert on weapons of mass destruction, or the lives of sources with whom she has worked in different countries.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York told reporters in Washington: "This case is one of the most dastardly, despicable things that I have seen in my more than 20 years in Washington. And it speaks to the lengths of how far some will go to stifle dissent."
Democrats, including presidential candidates Howard Dean and former NATO commander Wesley Clark, also questioned whether Attorney-General John Ashcroft -- the top U.S. law enforcement official -- can be trusted to investigate the matter and called for an independent probe.
"If you appoint someone of real, rock-ribbed integrity, I think that's the only way the public will have faith that there will be a complete and thorough and fearless investigation that will go wherever it leads," Schumer said.
The White House is already struggling with criticism over its handling of postwar Iraq and the fact that Washington has yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in the country.
It now faces fresh criticism from the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives, which recently delivered a report criticizing the administration for relying on outdated and inadequate intelligence on Iraq to justify going to war.
Pressed by reporters yesterday, McClellan said the White House knows nothing more about the leak than what's been reported in the media and sees no reason for an informal internal investigation.
"We don't know, we don't have any information that's been brought to our attention beyond what we've seen in the media reports. I've made that clear," McClellan said.
So far, the Justice Department says it is examining whether there should be a full probe. A department official said part of the inquiry is to determine whether the leak violated the law or national security, or caused any damage.
But McClellan said the department has yet to request any information from the White House, despite the fact that the leak occurred 10 weeks ago.
Rightly or wrongly, some analysts said McClellan's apparently evasive answers at the briefing recalled past scandals at the White House.
"It sounds like the classic first move in 'damage control.' And notwithstanding their assertion that nobody there knows anything about it, we have all been there and we've all heard that kind of thing," said Leon Fuerth, who served as national security adviser to former Vice President Al Gore.
Asked about McClellan's handling of the media's tough questioning, Fuerth tells RFE/RL: "If subsequently it turns out that that statement [McClellan saying the White House knows nothing] was not quite accurate, and that it has to be amended in some way, then the thing is not going to go away. And if it's found to be substantially in error, then it will definitely not go away."
The "Post's" report cited a senior administration official as saying that before Novak's column ran, two top White House officials called six leading journalists in Washington to disclose the identity of Wilson's wife.
But Novak -- the only reporter to run the leak -- took issue with at least part of the "Post's" report on Monday on "Crossfire," a political talk show he co-hosts on CNN.
"Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this in July. I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson's report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing," Novak said.
Novak added that as a professional reporter, he will never reveal his sources, in keeping with standard journalistic ethics.
So far, none of the other reporters alleged to have been called by the White House has come forward to confirm or deny receiving such a call.
Where the story goes from here is anybody's guess. But it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. The rules for appointment of a special counsel give Attorney-General Ashcroft wide latitude to appoint one, conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if such a counsel is needed, or to conclude that it would be better for the Justice Department to handle the probe itself.
Congress could also play a role, but it is unclear how far the Republican-controlled legislature would pursue the matter.