- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself yesterday from the investigation into who leaked a CIA operative’s name to the press, putting the politically sensitive matter in the hands of a U.S. attorney with broad investigative powers.

Deputy Attorney General James Comey said Mr. Ashcroft made the decision in an effort to exercise “an abundance of caution” to avoid conflicts of interest, but would not elaborate on what specifically prompted the decision.

“The issue surrounding the attorney general’s recusal is not one of actual conflict of interest that arises normally when someone has a financial interest or something,” said Mr. Comey, recently appointed to the No. 2 post in the Justice Department. “The issue that [Mr. Ashcroft] was concerned about was one of appearance, and I can’t go beyond that.”

The Justice Department is investigating who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Wilson to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July, an act that went largely unnoticed for months but sparked a fuss in September after Democrats accused the Bush administration of leaking Mrs. Wilson’s name as a form of political retaliation.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, now takes over the probe, previously conducted by FBI agents under the direction of Mr. Ashcroft.

Mr. Comey described Mr. Fitzgerald as “an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor” with a “sterling reputation for integrity and impartiality.”

“I once told a Chicago newspaper that Pat Fitzgerald was Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree,” Mr. Comey said. “Anyone who knows him, who knows his work, who knows his background, knows that he is the perfect man for this job.”

Mr. Fitzgerald remains under the formal auspices of the Justice Department and is not an “independent counsel” in the manner of Kenneth W. Starr or Lawrence Walsh.

However, Mr. Comey said Mr. Fitzgerald will have all “the tools necessary to conduct a completely independent investigation,” adding that he will not have to “come back to me or anybody else at the Justice Department” for permission to take the probe in any direction Mr. Fitzgerald deems necessary.

Mr. Fitzgerald led the investigation of former Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was indicted this month on 22 counts of tax fraud, lying to federal agents, taking free vacations, illegally doling out state contracts to friends, and skimming cash out of his campaign fund for personal use.

President Bush, vacationing in Crawford, Texas, was informed of the decision at noon yesterday.

Mr. Bush “wants to get to the bottom of this,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. “He said in September that he welcomes this investigation and has absolute confidence in the ability of the Justice Department to do a good job.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has agitated for the appointment of an independent investigator for months, said yesterday’s announcement “is not everything we asked for, but it comes darn close.”

“Tonight, the American people can feel more assured that there will be a full and thorough investigation, no matter where it leads,” Mr. Schumer said.

The furor over the leak began after Mr. Novak’s July 14 column about the appointment of Joseph C. Wilson IV as the Bush administration’s special envoy to Africa to investigate a claim that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attempted to procure nuclear weapons material from nations in Africa.

Mr. Wilson wrote in a New York Times op-ed that after “eight days drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people,” he concluded that Saddam never tried to obtain uranium from Niger.

Mr. Novak wrote that a CIA source told him Mrs. Wilson was the person who recommended her husband for the job. Mr. Wilson is a former ambassador in the Clinton administration who had assailed the Bush administration’s foreign policy and also contributed to the White House campaign of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

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