The U.S. Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into allegations that the Bush administration violated U.S. federal law by leaking the identity of an undercover CIA operative in a bid to discredit a critic of the Iraq war.
Washington, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Attorney-General John Ashcroft announced the start of the investigation, despite calls from Democrats urging that an independent counsel handle the case to ensure fairness.
Ashcroft, an appointee of U.S. President George W. Bush, told a news conference in Washington yesterday: "The Department of Justice received from the Central Intelligence Agency a request for a criminal investigation concerning a possible violation of federal law regarding an alleged unauthorized disclosure of classified information. After a prompt review of this request, the criminal division of the Department of Justice, with the assistance of the FBI as the lead investigative agency, opened a full investigation."
It is rare for the Justice Department to conduct a full criminal probe into an alleged leak of classified information.
The case began in July, when a newspaper columnist -- citing senior Bush administration officials -- revealed the identity of a CIA operative as the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador who said publicly that President George W. Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa was false.
Wilson traveled to Niger in 2002 at the request of the CIA to investigate the claim and found no evidence to support it. Wilson says that by naming his wife publicly, the White House sought to deflect attention away from his charges and exact revenge.
After "The Washington Post" reported last weekend that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the matter, the case quickly became the top news story in Washington.
Analysts say it could prove politically costly to Bush at a time when he is already under criticism for the cost of rebuilding Iraq, for mounting U.S. casualties in the country and because no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found.
The White House has denied having any knowledge of the case beyond what has been reported in the media and says Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, played no part in the alleged leak.
Wilson has accused Rove of instigating the incident.
Yesterday, in his first public comments on the controversy, Bush called for anyone with information about the case to come forward. He told reporters in Chicago: "I have told our administration, people in my administration to be fully cooperative. I want to know the truth."
But Democrats in Congress say they have no faith that Ashcroft -- America's top law-enforcement official -- can oversee an impartial inquiry into such a politically charged case. They are urging that he hand over the investigation to an independent counsel who can be trusted by all parties.
Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, told reporters: "We don't have confidence in John Ashcroft. I had confidence in [former Attorney-General] Janet Reno. And we certainly know that without any doubt that somebody broke the federal law. So on those two counts, I don't think there's any doubt that a special counsel is called for."
But the decision about who should investigate the case rests with the Justice Department. And no matter how much Democrats complain, it is unclear if they can involve Congress in the matter, since the legislature is controlled by Republicans.
Republicans, meanwhile, are accusing the Democrats of simply trying to exploit the case for political gain.
Ashcroft is viewed by his critics as a staunch advocate of law and order, often at the expense of civil liberties. He says the probe will be handled by qualified and impartial professionals at the Justice Department.
"The prosecutors and agents who are and will be handling this investigation are career professionals with extensive experience in handling matters involving sensitive national security information and with experience relating to investigations of unauthorized disclosures of such information," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft has asked administration officials to preserve all government documents that could pertain to the probe, such as e-mails and phone logs.
"The Washington Post" has quoted administration officials as saying the White House leaked the CIA officer's identity to six journalists last July, although only one reporter printed the story.