While some Democrats applauded the decision, several presidential hopefuls attacked the appointment of a federal prosecutor to take over the politically sensitive investigation into whether a Bush administration official leaked a CIA operative's name.
Attorney General John Ashcroft removed himself Tuesday from the inquiry into who leaked the name to a newspaper columnist. U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago, a career prosecutor, will lead the probe.
Deputy Attorney General James Comey announced that Ashcroft had stepped aside to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest after reviewing evidence recently developed in the inquiry. He would not discuss the evidence.
Democrats have been calling for Ashcroft to step down, but the critics were divided over the decision to keep the investigation in-house with a promise of independence for Fitzgerald.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota called the announcement "as welcome as it is overdue."
"For the sake of America's national security, I hope the administration will give the new counsel its full cooperation and the resources needed to quickly get to the bottom of this urgent matter and swiftly bring to justice the person or persons responsible," he said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Ashcroft made the right decision.
"Our intelligence agents need to know that we understand the sacrifices they make and that we will come to their defense when someone puts them at risk," said Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
But the Democratic presidential contenders made clear that the decision will be a campaign issue.
"The public will not likely trust the results of an investigation headed by a political appointee, especially when the special counsel is constrained by Department of Justice regulations that severely curtail the prosecutor's autonomy," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said the change in leadership doesn't change the fact that Justice Department lawyers will nonetheless be answering to a political appointee.
"Whether it is a special counsel or the Justice Department inspector general, the American people deserve a person whose honesty, objectivity and fairness are guaranteed to investigate this serious matter," Dean said.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards did not criticize the appointment, but said Ashcroft's decision "comes far too late. President Bush knows how to get what he wants inside his White House, yet for months, his administration has somehow failed to find the person responsible for this dangerous and destructive leak."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry called Fitzgerald's appointment "a half measure and nowhere good enough to restore public confidence in this tarnished agency."
He said Comey and Fitzgerald "are both Bush political appointees and carry the same baggage as John Ashcroft."
Investigators want to know who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer, to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July. Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who has said he thinks his wife's identity was disclosed to discredit his assertions that the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq's nuclear capabilities to build a case for war.
The leaker could be charged with a felony if identified. The FBI has interviewed more than three dozen Bush administration officials.
Fitzgerald has been given "the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation," Comey said.
Comey, however, will retain ultimate authority over Fitzgerald as the acting attorney general for the case. Comey rejected choosing a complete outsider to be the special counsel.
With an election year approaching, a vacationing President Bush welcomed the decision from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Mr. Bush "wants to get to the bottom of this," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
By Larry Margasak