CBSN

Tough Task For Leak Probers

White House, CIA, Investigation, Scrutiny
CBS
The federal probe of a possible White House leak of the classified identity of a CIA agent will be led by career civil servants who face the difficult task of sorting out who told what to whom.

Democrats continue to call for a special counsel, but President Bush says he is "absolutely confident" that the Justice Department can do a good job." Attorney General John Ashcroft won't say if he's considering appointing a special counsel, but a spokesman says it has not been ruled out.

Law enforcement sources say regardless of who's in charge, the chances of this investigation going anywhere are next to none, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts. A year after it happened, the FBI is still investigating a leak of classified information about Osama Bin Laden from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"It's always difficult to prosecute leak cases because the person who leaked it almost never admits that he did it, and absent a confession it's almost impossible to find out who did it," Jeffrey Smith, former Justice Department general counsel, tells CBS.

The CIA officer was identified shortly after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, publicly doubted the Bush administration's case for the war in Iraq. Wilson had traveled to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the allegation that Iraq tried to buy uranium there.

Wilson reported finding no evidence, but the White House made the charge anyway. Wilson criticized the claim this summer. His wife was named in a July column by Robert Novak.

The probe concerns whether anyone violated laws against disclosure of classified information or a 1982 statute specifically making it a crime for someone to knowingly disclose the identity of a covert intelligence officer.

The preliminary investigation began in July when the CIA referred the case to the Justice Department. Justice sent the CIA a list of 11 standard questions and received responses on Sept. 23.

These questions concerned the date of the alleged leak, whether the information was accurate, whether any hints of the data had been released previously, what effect the disclosure might have on national security, and other issues.

The full investigation was actually launched Friday. It was unclear why the White House was only told on Monday evening that the probe was underway.

The probe for now is in the hands of 11 Justice Department lawyers led by John Dion, chief of the counterespionage section of criminal division. As the investigation progresses, FBI counterintelligence agents from the Washington field office will be conducting the interviews and examining documents and e-mails, officials said.

Novak wrote that he got the CIA agent's name from "two senior administration officials." He said the CIA confirmed her role and "asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else."

The Washington Post reported that a White House official called six reporters with the same agent's name, but Novak was the only one to release it.

White House staff learned of the probe Tuesday morning in an emailed memo from counsel Alberto Gonzales instructing them to preserve documents related to the case.

A follow-up memo later in the day contained the specific instructions from the Justice Department on what to preserve: all documents, telephone records, computer files, and other material since Feb. 1, 2002, relating to Wilson, his wife or contacts with reporters Knut Royce, Timothy M. Phelps or Novak.

Mr. Bush ordered his staff to cooperate with the first major probe of his administration.

"I don't know of anyone in my administration who has leaked," Mr. Bush told reporters. But, he added, "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing."

After the FBI completes its probe, a decision could be made to proceed with prosecution — or drop the case.

Although Mr. 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 and investigations of the Clinton administration.

Congressional Democrats plan to continue pressing the White House for an independent investigation, saying Ashcroft is too close to the White House to be objective.

Democrats tried to attach a resolution calling for a special counsel to a spending bill for the District of Columbia but Republicans ruled it not relevant and it was defeated without a vote. Some Republicans said the Democrats were just playing politics.

"Surprise, surprise, they are calling for a special counsel. My goodness," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. "It must be in their political handbook, their campaign handbook."

Under 1999 regulations, the attorney general can appoint an outside special counsel if the matter under investigation presents a conflict of interest for the Justice Department or "in other extraordinary circumstances" when it is in the public interest to do so. At least eight independent counsels were appointed during the Clinton presidency.

Ashcroft declined a direct response to the calls for a special counsel. "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," Ashcroft said.

Later, the Justice Department said "no options are closed" when asked if a special prosecutor has been ruled out. "We are not closing any legal doors," spokesman Mark Corallo said.

Wilson plans to talk to the House Democrats in their weekly caucus meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday, and has asked to speak to reporters as well afterward, Democratic officials said.

On Monday, administration officials vigorously denied anyone at the White House leaked the CIA officer's identity. In particular, spokesman Scott McClellan said it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Karl Rove, the president's top political operative, was involved.

While he doesn't think Rove himself leaked the name, Wilson said he "thought that it came from the White House, and Karl Rove was the personification of the White House political operation."