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White House Defends Leak Probe

White House, CIA, Investigation, Scrutiny
CBS
White House officials began saving phone logs and correspondence Wednesday and insisted again that there is no need for an independent investigation, reports CBS News Correspondent John Roberts.

"It's being addressed by the career professionals at the Department of Justice and FBI," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Indeed, a career professional is in charge: John Dion, a top spy-catcher who oversaw the prosecutions of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

But Dion reports to Deputy Attorney General Robert McCallum, an old Yale buddy of President Bush; and, of course, McCallum also reports to Attorney General John Ashcroft.

"The theater of the absurd at the White House is opening a new farce," says Rep. James McDermott, D-Wash. "The plot's an old one – the fox, Mr. Ashcroft, is inspecting the henhouse."

White House officials also again denied political director Karl Rove was the source of the leak that revealed former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA operative.

Wilson claims he was targeted for undermining President Bush's claim that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa and that Rove told reporters his wife was "fair game." But while they said Rove didn't start the story, officials left open the possibility he may have talked with reporters after it came out.

"Now we're getting into issues such as, 'Did anyone talk about what was in the news, what was reported in the paper?' things of that nature. That can go down a whole lot of different roads," said McClellan.

It's not the first time Rove has been in the spotlight because of leaks. In 1992, he was fired as a campaign consultant for the first President Bush after he was suspected as the source of a leak that the campaign was in shambles. The leak was given to Robert Novak, the same columnist who outed Wilson's wife.

As he does now, Rove denies being the source of that leak. But if he did talk with reporters about Wilson's trip to Niger or his wife's status at the CIA – even after the fact – it's the type of thing the Justice Department wants to hear about.

McClellan said he had no knowledge about anyone from the administration going to the Justice Department with any information about the case, as the president has urged. Similarly, he said he did not know of anyone hiring legal counsel.

"At this point, all the Department of Justice has asked us to do is preserve any and all information that could be related," he said. McClellan indicated the White House would consent, if asked, to polygraph tests for staff. "We will cooperate fully, at the direction of the president ... Full cooperation is full cooperation."

One day after the probe was announced, there was no sign of investigators at the White House, McClellan said.

Mr. Bush, on Tuesday, said, "I want to know who the leakers are.'' He voiced confidence that career Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents can impartially conduct the investigation.

He said he is "absolutely confident" the investigation can be handled within his administration and reiterated that he has asked the White House staff to cooperate. The president also maintained there is no need to name an outside special counsel.

That did not satisfy Democratic leaders, who argued that Ashcroft was too close to the White House to run an independent investigation.

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

Ashcroft has not ruled out the possibility of appointing a special counsel, said a senior law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, 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."

Wilson had traveled to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations of uranium sales to Iraq. He concluded the allegations were not credible. On July 6, 2003, he wrote a commentary in The New York Times that said some intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was "twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in two e-mails to White House staff on Tuesday, ordered the preservation of any documents relevant to the investigation, particularly any contacts with Novak and Timothy M. Phelps, Washington bureau chief for Newsday newspaper, and Knut Royce, a staff writer for the paper.