- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Federal investigators questioned President Bush for more than an hour yesterday as part of the probe into the leak of a CIA operative’s name.

The president was interviewed for 70 minutes by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the head of the Justice Department investigation, and members of his team. The only other person in the room was Jim Sharp, a private trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor hired by Mr. Bush, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

“The leaking of classified information is a very serious matter,” Mr. McClellan said, adding that the president has said repeatedly that he wants his administration to cooperate with the investigation. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the president of the United States.”

Investigators want to know who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July. Disclosure of an undercover officer’s identity can be a federal crime.

Mr. Fitzgerald declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the Bush interview, but legal experts following the case said it could indicate that the probe was nearing an end.

Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who is married to Mrs. Plame, has said that he thinks his wife’s identity was disclosed to undermine his credibility. Mr. Wilson denounced the Bush administration for saying that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had tried to obtain uranium from the African nation of Niger.

Mr. Wilson went to Niger for the CIA to investigate, and he found the accusation, which Mr. Bush mentioned in a State of the Union address, to be highly unlikely.

Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials, including White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, also have been questioned in the investigation. Several news organizations have received federal subpoenas for questioning as well.

Mr. Wilson suggested in a recent book that the leaker was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff. The White House denies this and accuses Mr. Wilson of seeking to bolster the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, for whom Mr. Wilson has acted as a foreign policy adviser.

Lawyers say they think prosecutors probably are close to wrapping up the investigation because they have interviewed press reporters. Justice Department criminal guidelines require that all available avenues be exhausted before prosecutors subpoena or interview reporters.

Chris Caldwell, a former Justice Department prosecutor in private practice in Los Angeles, said few leak investigations ever result in criminal charges. But in highly sensitive cases such as this one, he said, prosecutors want to ensure they have run every possible lead to ground.

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