The Elephant in Wilson's Living Room

feds broaden leak probe, start grilling republican party officials

The Justice Department and FBI have broadened their criminal investigation of who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame to include subsequent Bush administration efforts to discredit her and her diplomat husband, according to two administration officials familiar with the probe.

Of particular interest, the two sources said, were contacts between White House officials and the Republican National Committee during the burgeoning scandal. Probers are interested in how the Bush administration and party officials strategized to stymie negative press and to counter public criticism by former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV of the leak of his wife's status as a CIA officer.

The administration sources said, however, that they don't think the investigators are probing the efforts to discredit Wilson and Plame as potential criminal conduct but rather as a way of determining who leaked her identity to conservative columnist Robert Novak.

"I guess their thinking is that if you were involved in efforts to damage their reputations or discredit them since the leak, you might have been the one to have leaked the name," said one of the administration officials. "And if you are someone managing the press response . . . you might have also been in contact with the leaker—or know who it is."

The investigators' motives could not be independently verified, however. And in confirming the expanded scope of the investigation, the two administration officials may simply be engaging in additional damage control by downplaying the potential motives of federal investigators. A broader investigation of actions beyond the original leak would certainly further embarrass the Bush administration. It would also ratchet up pressure by Democrats that a special counsel investigate the leak.

The sources may also have been attempting to discredit the investigators by suggesting that any investigation of the administration's attempted management of the news media—including efforts to discredit Wilson—might be viewed as interference with legitimate political discourse and free speech.

The FBI has already interviewed as many as three dozen administration officials and has reviewed phone logs, personal calendars, and e-mail records of a far greater number, according to government officials. Among those questioned have been chief political adviser Karl Rove, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, a number of staffers for Vice President Dick Cheney, and officials at the CIA, State Department, and Pentagon.

"In that this is an ongoing investigation," FBI spokesperson Susan Whitson told the Voice on Monday, "the FBI would not be at liberty to comment."

The leak to Novak was made while Bush administration officials were attempting to discredit Wilson. The retired diplomat had publicly contended that the Bush administration had been told that one of the tales it used to bolster its case for going to war with Iraq was probably not true. Wilson, congressional Democrats, and even some members of the Bush administration have asserted that the purpose of the leak was not only to discredit Wilson as being a tool of others but also to intimidate other government officials from coming forward to question the rationale for war.

In his July 14 column first disclosing Plame's CIA connection, Novak suggested that she was responsible for her husband's selection to head a mission to Niger to investigate charges that Saddam Hussein's regime tried to purchase uranium to build a nuclear weapon.

"Wilson never worked for the CIA," Novak wrote, "but his wife . . . is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me that Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger."

The White House and CIA have since said that Plame had no role in the selection of her husband for the mission. After his eight-day assignment to Niger in early 2002, Wilson reported back to the CIA that the allegations of a uranium purchase were unfounded and most likely a hoax.

Despite Wilson's conclusions, and similar ones made by the State Department and Pentagon, Bush cited the Niger "evidence" in his State of the Union address last January to pump up public support for the war.

Novak's column prompted Wilson to speak out in his wife's defense. As he did so, the administration sources said, the White House depended on RNC officials to act as surrogates in questioning his credibility and motives.

Which they did. "Joe Wilson is not an apolitical person himself," RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, for example, said in a statement. "He's . . . a supporter of John Kerry's campaign, a maxed-out contributor, and wants to endorse him given the opportunity. He has spoken to a Win Without War rally, one of the most radical anti-Bush groups out there."

Wilson also is a career diplomat who served both Democratic and Republican presidents and is said to be well liked and trusted by the first President Bush. Wilson was among the last Western diplomats to leave Baghdad after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait more than a decade ago, during a time when Saddam Hussein was threatening to execute Americans. The first President Bush subsequently appointed him to ambassadorships in Gabon and São Tomé and Principe. Wilson has since disclosed that he also twice voted for the first President Bush. During the Clinton administration, Wilson was senior director of African affairs on the National Security Council.

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