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WASHINGTON, D.C.Political pressure is beginning to mount on Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is trying to deflect criticism from his own department and by a bipartisan coalition that includes conservative Republicans in Congress.
Reports claim that top investigators at the Justice Department and within the FBI are worried about Ashcroft's possible conflicts of interest in the criminal investigation into who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, to the press.
As the government official most involved in the war on terror in the U.S., Ashcroft meets regularly with the president, and therefore might find it hard to distance himself from the White House should it try to hide the leaker's identity.
Karl Rove, the man who heads the Bush re-election campaign, has been mentioned as a possible leaker. He has denied any involvement. Rove has past ties with Ashcroft as an adviser to the former Missouri senator's political campaigns. A company that Rove controlled was reportedly paid more than $300,000 by Ashcroft's 1994 Senate campaign for direct mail and other services, according to a New York Times report. Rove also reportedly played a role in two earlier Ashcroft campaigns for governor. He was involved in Ashcroft's appointment as Attorney General when Bush's first choice, Marc Racicot, governor of Montana, declined the post.
Bush himself has treated the leak as something of a joke. "This is a large administration and there's a lot of senior officials," Bush told journalists. "I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is, partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers."
So far Ashcroft has showed no signs of quitting the investigation. But things could change, especially if his image is tarnished and it reflects poorly on Bush's re-election campaign. "Theres no independent counsel statute anymore," civil rights attorney David Cole said this morning. "But he can appoint a special counsel if he choses to do so. It's a political choice and he's under increasing pressure to do so."
Meanwhile, the bipartisan coalition in Congress is taking steps to undo parts of the Patriot Act, which Ashcroft promoted following 9/11 and continues to insist is the way to go in stopping terrorism.
Ashcroft has sluffed off any criticism of the Patriot Act as the sniveling of a bunch of cry babies. But his tone may change here as well. Ashcroft's Justice Department wrote the Patriot Act, and the Attorney General pushed it through Congress with minimal discussion and little dissent. Since then he has assiduously promoted the act, and this summer he made a national tour promoting the legislation as a major tool in combating terrorism.
The act has met with growing protest from both liberal civil rights advocates and conservatives who fear it might one day be turned against them. Earlier this week, a Senate coalition led by Dick Durbin of Illinois and conservative Larry Craig of Utah sponsored legislation that would rewrite parts of the act. The new bill would limit the use of "sneak and peak" search warrants. These warrants now permit searches without notifying the target.
In addition there would be restrictions placed on the use of roving wiretaps. As it stands the government can wiretap any phone a suspect is thought to use. Under the new legislation, the suspect would have to be present at the site the wiretap is issued for, and the warrants would have to identify the target and location.
The legislation reinstates prior standards for seizing library and business records, and also states that library computers can't be searched without a court order.
The bill has support from such diverse groups as the ACLU, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and Gun Owners of America.
Research: Ashley Glacel
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