Top Justice Department and FBI officials are worried that Attorney General John Ashcroft is mishandling the probe into whether officials broke federal law when they disclosed the name of a CIA operative, a newspaper reports.
Meanwhile, President Bush has ordered an end to all leaks from administration officials, Knight-Ridder is reporting. But even that order was leaked by a senior administration official to Knight-Ridder.
The worries by prosecutors and FBI officials — including political allies of the attorney general — who spoke to The New York Times pertain to Ashcroft's refusal to recuse himself from the probe or appoint a special counsel. It comes as the Justice Department faces the critical choice of whether to convene a grad jury.
The investigation concerns the wife of Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who in February 2002 investigated the allegation that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger.
Wilson found no evidence of the allegation, but the Bush administration made it part of its case for war. In July, Wilson criticized the White House in a newspaper column. The administration subsequently retracted the Niger claim.
A few days later, columnist Robert Novak — quoting two "senior administration officials" — reported the name of Wilson's wife and that she was a CIA operative.
After complaints by the CIA, the Justice Department last month opened a probe into whether officials who named Wilson's wife to Novak and other journalists broke a 1982 law against identifying undercover operatives.
Democrats have called for Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel, similar to the eight independent probes launched during the Clinton administration. Democrats have cited Ashcroft's ties not only to Mr. Bush, who appointed the attorney general, but also to Karl Rove, the president's top strategist and a potential key figure in the investigation.
Wilson has alternately suggested Rove leaked the name or condoned the leaking. The White House denies any involvement by Rove.
Rove's political consulting firm received $300,000 from Ashcroft's 1994 Senate campaign, and Rove donated $1,000 to Ashcroft in 1999 — one of only five candidates Rove supported financially.
Ashcroft has also come under fire, The Times reports, for allowing the White House to learn of the probe well before counsel Alberto Gonzales told staff to preserve evidence.
Officials who spoke with the Times say they worry Ashcroft could be damaged by the impression he is not impartial. One told the newspaper that the debate over whether to appoint a special counsel was "wide open."
The officials indicate Ashcroft has told his investigators to find the leaker. "He's angry about this," one official said.
Infighting among Bush Cabinet officials over Iraq policy has led to several damaging news stories, Knight-Ridder reports.
According to an official, Mr. Bush recently asked staff if the internal tension was as bad as the legendary feud between the Reagan administration secretaries of State and Defense, George Schulz and Casper Weinberger. An official told the president it was "way worse."
The president is also growing frustrated with Congress, said Knight-Ridder. At a recent meeting with senators who want to give Iraq aid in the form of loans rather than grants, the president slammed his fist on the table at one point and said, "This is bad policy," according to a participant.
He then told a senator: "I'm not here to debate it."