CBSN

Wider Scope In CIA Leak Probe

White House partially covered by the U.S. Flag, DOJ and CIA seals
AP / CBS
Casting a wider net, federal investigators are asking the Defense and State departments to preserve any potential evidence that might shed light on who leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer.

Meanwhile, Democrats cited a nine-year-old, six-figure transaction between Attorney General John Ashcroft and White House strategist Karl Rove as new reason for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.

The Justice Department sent letters Thursday to the two agencies requesting preservation of phone logs, e-mails and other documents that could become evidence in the inquiry, senior law enforcement officials said. Similar letters already have gone to the White House and the CIA.

The letters are routinely used in national security investigations to prevent destruction of information that a government agency might possess.

Officials at the State Department might have known of the CIA officer's identity because she was probably affiliated with one or more U.S. embassies overseas. The Defense Department is a key part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus that frequently works with the CIA.

"We will cooperate fully," State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said. Two Defense Department officials said they had been told earlier to expect such a letter.

Investigators are trying to determine who leaked the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operations officer who has served overseas. Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has accused the Bush administration of selective use of intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's identity, which first appeared in a July 14 column by syndicated columnist Robert Novak and later was reported by Newsday. The probe is focused on finding the leaker, not on prosecuting those who reported her name, officials say.

Justice Department policy is to consider seeking subpoenas of reporters only as a last resort, officials say.

"When it comes to the media, there are a lot of safeguards built into the system," FBI spokeswoman Susan Whitson said.

Ashcroft would have to personally approve any subpoenas for reporters' notes or telephone records.

President Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that, as far as he knew, no White House staffers had been interviewed by the FBI and no subpoenas for records or documents had been received. McClellan promised to disclose any such subpoenas received by the White House, provided the Justice Department did not object.

On Capitol Hill, the Democratic drumbeat continued for Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to run the investigation. Democrats say someone outside the Justice Department could conduct a more thorough investigation because that person would not have political ties to the Bush administration.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., took it a step further by urging Ashcroft to step aside from the probe, citing numerous political ties between Justice Department officials and the White House.

Schumer noted that Ashcroft stepped aside in the 2001 probe of former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., because Torricelli had campaigned against Ashcroft in the attorney general's unsuccessful bid for re-election as a senator from Missouri in 2000.

"It is just as inappropriate for Mr. Ashcroft to do any work on this matter," Schumer said.

In addition to his political ties to the White House, Democrats said, Ashcroft once had a business relationship with one potential subject of the probe, Rove.

Wilson first said he suspected Rove of being responsible for the leaks, then backtracked and said he felt Rove had merely condoned, or at least not condemned, the publication of Plame's name. The White House has denied Rove was involved.

The New York Times reports Rove's former company received $300,000 from Ashcroft's 1994 Senate campaign for political work. Ashcroft served in the Senate until 2000, when he lost a reelection bid to deceased Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.

According to federal election records, Ashcroft is also one of only five candidates to whom Rove donated money from 1997 to date. Rove gave the then-Senator $1,000 in 1999, as much as he donated to Mr. Bush the same year.

"Does anyone really believe that this attorney general can with a straight face say they're going to investigate these people when they work for them, they have close ties?" Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asked.

Justice Department officials say Ashcroft has not foreclosed any option in the investigation but continues to have confidence in career prosecutors and FBI agents to handle it.

Without identifying anyone, McClellan said foes of the White House "are looking through the lens of political opportunism" to fan the controversy.

"There are some that are seeking partisan political advantage," he said. "I don't need to go into names. We all know who they are."

According to The Times, House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., said an investigation would only be warranted if there were more evidence.

Goss made reference to the Whitewater-Monica Lewinsky investigation — one of eight independent counsel probes of the Clinton White House. "If somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I will have an investigation," Goss said.

The investigation, meanwhile, remained in its early stages. The FBI's team of about a half-dozen agents has put together an investigative strategy and set up a command structure that includes both FBI Director Robert Mueller and Deputy Director Bruce Gebhardt.