- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

The White House yesterday began combing through its computer and phone records for information that might shed light on whether staffers improperly disclosed the name of a CIA employee.

Meanwhile, the journalist who published the name, columnist Robert Novak, accused Democrats of politicizing the issue. Undaunted, Democrats continued to pillory President Bush for refusing to call for a special prosecutor.

The White House reiterated its faith in the Justice Department, which has already begun an investigation but not to the point of questioning staffers. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales has sent staffers two memos directing them to preserve any pertinent records.

“What has been asked of us at this point is simply to preserve information,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “The Justice Department hasn’t asked us anything beyond that, at this point.”

Democrats insisted the Justice Department could not investigate objectively because Attorney General John Ashcroft is too close to White House political strategist Karl Rove. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, demanded that Mr. Ashcroft appoint an independent prosecutor.

“Now isn’t that a sweetheart deal?” Mr. Harkin asked. “Attorney General John Ashcroft, appointed by this president, investigating the president. If a situation ever cried out for a special counsel, this is it.”

But Mr. McClellan said he still didn’t know whether there is any truth to anonymously sourced news reports claiming White House staff members had leaked the CIA employee’s name.

“There’s been no information brought to our attention to suggest that anyone leaked classified information,” the spokesman said.

He also reminded reporters that the story broke more than two months ago when Mr. Novak published the CIA employee’s name in a syndicated column. A Long Island, N.Y., newspaper published a follow-up story a few days later, which the rest of the press ignored.

But last Friday, NBC News reported that the CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the White House disclosed the name. Democrats suggested the name was leaked to punish the woman’s husband, former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, an outspoken Bush critic.

Democrats and the press were tantalized by the prospect of the Bush administration’s first criminal scandal and outside prosecutor.

“First, I did not receive a planned leak,” Mr. Novak wrote in his column yesterday. “Second, the CIA never warned me that the disclosure of Wilson’s wife working at the agency would endanger her or anybody else. Third, it was not much of a secret.”

He explained that Mr. Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA analyst, not a spy working deep undercover. Mr. Novak said it was a mistake for him to describe her as an “operative” in his original column because that suggested a secret position.

Still, the columnist said the delayed furor over the disclosure was an unseemly effort by Democrats to score political points against the president as the election campaign heats up.

“Wilson, after telling me in July that he would say nothing about his wife, has made investigation of the leak his life’s work — aided by the relentless Sen. Charles Schumer of New York,” Mr. Novak wrote of the two Democrats. “These efforts cannot be separated from the massive political assault on President Bush.”

The call for an independent counsel was reiterated yesterday in a letter to the president from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, and three other Democrats. They also called on Mr. Bush to make every senior White House staffer sign a statement denying responsibility for leaking the identity.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, also called for an independent counsel, telling reporters, “It’s reached a level where there needs to be a thorough nonpartisan investigation.”

Journalists spoke in breathless terms about the probe, with CBS News reporter Bob Schieffer suggesting it “could unravel the presidency.” CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer compared it to the Watergate 1970s scandal.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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