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.

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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