The Elephant in Wilson's Living Room

feds broaden leak probe, start grilling republican party officials

Administration and Republican Party officials asserted in interviews that their later attempts to discredit Wilson were justifiable because Democrats were attempting to exploit the scandal for their political advantage.

"There should be a recognition that there is a political aspect to all of this," said RNC spokesperson Christine Iverson. "Our job is to focus on politics, while the White House focuses on policy."

Senate Democrats, sensing an opening as the leak scandal widened, pressed Attorney General John Ashcroft to either recuse himself or appoint a special counsel. Ashcroft not only was appointed by Bush but also has close ties with Rove. Over the course of three political campaigns, for the governorship of Missouri and U.S. Senate, Ashcroft paid Rove's political consulting firm more than $746,000 for direct-mail services.

New York senator Charles E. Schumer said that after he gave a speech on the Senate floor urging Ashcroft to name a special counsel to conduct the leak probe, three or four Republicans told him they privately agreed with him, one of them saying, "You guys are right on this issue."

Particularly distressing to the White House have been reports that senior FBI and Justice Department officials privately encouraged Ashcroft to at least recuse himself or perhaps appoint a special counsel. But stopping the appointment of a special counsel is exactly the focus of Bush and RNC officials.

"An investigation by a special counsel would go on and on," said one official. "It would go on into the election year. And it would keep this in the news forever." White House and Republican Party strategists, this official said, believed that one of the ways they could dissipate public support for a special counsel was to attack Wilson and his wife.

In talking points distributed on Capitol Hill and to sympathetic TV journalists and conservative advocacy groups, the RNC has suggested that allies of the White House argue, "Lacking a positive agenda to offer the American people, the Democratic Party now returns to what they have long seen as their best opportunity to defeat President Bush and Republicans—scandalmongering."

An administration official suggested that a criminal investigation of how the White House and its political allies have managed the media might have the potential of curtailing or criminalizing political speech. Such issues were raised during the investigation of President Clinton by Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, this official noted. In that instance, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal had made allegations to a number of news organizations regarding the private lives of several of Starr's prosecutors, according to numerous published reports. None of the allegations were ever substantiated or found their way into print. But Starr responded by subpoenaing Blumenthal and a number of other White House aides to answer questions about their contacts with the press.

The subpoenas led to widespread criticism of Starr for attempting to stymie criticism of his office.

But independent legal ethics experts queried for this article said there appeared to be scant evidence that any actions by the current investigators were similar to those of Starr and could be argued as having a chilling effect on political speech.

"I don't see the parallel," said Charles Wolfram, professor emeritus of legal ethics at Cornell University Law School. "To my mind, criticizing Kenneth Starr is not a federal crime. But the leak [of Plame's identity] is a felony."

A more pressing ethics issue, as Wolfram sees it, is whether Ashcroft should be involved in the investigation. "He should leave it to career Justice Department prosecutors whether or not to go after politically sensitive targets," Wolfram said. "You can't have Ashcroft investigate the people who appointed him or his own political party."

Wolfram said that it would also be logical for investigators to want to interview RNC officials: "It would not be incorrect to presume that Novak has since been in constant contact with the RNC and Republican operatives. That would be the natural course of things."

RNC officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that they distributed information to reporters regarding campaign contributions made by Wilson to Senator John Kerry, one of the Democratic contenders against Bush.

Iverson, the RNC spokesperson, said, however that no one at the RNC disseminated similar information regarding political contributions made by Plame. The disclosure that Plame gave $1,000 to former vice president Al Gore's presidential campaign has been a particularly sore subject with U.S. intelligence officials, because the Federal Election Commission requires contributors to disclose occupations and employers. Plame made the contribution under her married name and listed her employer as Brewster-Jennings & Associates, an energy consulting company. Brewster-Jennings has since been identified by Bush administration officials as a CIA front that Plame used as a cover for her clandestine work. The disclosure, again by Novak, that the firm was a CIA front came about as a direct result of the reporting of Plame's campaign contribution.

The Brewster-Jennings information was first reported by Novak on CNN on October 3. An assistant to Novak said he discovered Plame's contribution to Gore and her employment by Brewster-Jennings after having done a search of Plame's contributions on the opensecrets.org website, and that if Novak did not write or broadcast the information himself, it was so easily accessible that it was only a matter of time before some other journalist would have discovered it and reported about it anyway.

Of course, nobody would have been looking into Plame's background had White House officials not leaked her status as a clandestine CIA officer, and if Novak hadn't agreed to out her for the Bush administration in an attempt to discredit her husband.

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