Justice Department probe into CIA leak not limited to White House, spy agency

Friday, October 3rd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ 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.

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 a national security investigation to prevent destruction of any information a government agency could have.

The Justice Department also sent a new letter to the White House requesting that they turn over some materials, spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday. He said the request would be distributed to the staff. It would be the third memo sent around the White House in the leak investigation.

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.

Promising to cooperate, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that State Department officials would search documents and other records ``to see if we have anything relevant.'' He said he was not sure ``what they are looking for.'' 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.

Attorney General John 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.

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.''

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.