By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
Justice Department officials made the crucial decision in late 2003 to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the leak of the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in large part because investigators had begun to specifically question the veracity of accounts provided to them by White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, according to senior law enforcement officials.
Several of the federal investigators were also deeply concerned that then attorney general John Ashcroft was personally briefed regarding the details of at least one FBI interview with Rove, despite Ashcroft's own longstanding personal and political ties to Rove, the Voice has also learned. The same sources said Ashcroft was also told that investigators firmly believed that Rove had withheld important information from them during that FBI interview.
Those concerns by senior career law enforcement officials regarding the propriety of such briefings continuing, as Rove became more central to the investigation, also was instrumental in the naming of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
Up until that point, the investigation had been conducted by a team of career prosecutors and FBI agents, some of whom believed Ashcroft should recuse himself. Democrats on Capitol Hill were calling for him to step down, but he did not. Then on December 30, 2003, Ashcroft unexpectedly recused himself from further overseeing the matter, and James B. Comey, then deputy attorney general, named Patrick J. Fitzgerald as the special prosecutor who would take over the case.
The Justice Department declined to publicly offer any explanation at the time for either the recusal or the naming of a special prosecutoran appointment that would ultimately place in potential legal jeopardy senior advisers to the president of the United States, and lead to the jailing of a New York Times reporter.
During his initial interview with the FBI, in the fall of 2003, Rove did not disclose that he had ever discussed Plame with Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper, according to two legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the matter. Federal investigators were also skeptical of claims by Rove that he had only first learned of Plame's employment with the CIA from a journalist, even though he also claimed he could not specifically recall the name of the journalist.
As the truthfulness of Rove's accounts became more of a focus of investigators, career Justice Department employees and senior FBI officials became even more concerned about the continuing role in the investigation of Ashcroft, because of his close relationship with Rove. Rove had earlier served as an adviser to Ashcroft during the course of three political campaigns. And Roves onetime political consulting firm had been paid more than $746,000 for those services.
In response to these new allegations, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the current ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and former chairman of the committee as well, said in a statement: "There has long been the appearance of impropriety in Ashcroft's handling of this investigation. The former attorney general had well documented conflicts of interest in this matter, particularly with regard to his personal relationship with Karl Rove. Among other things, Rove was employed by Ashcroft throughout his political career, and Rove reportedly had fiercely advocated for Ashcroft's appointment as attorney general. Pursuant to standard rules of legal ethics, and explicit rules on conflict of interest, those facts alone should have dictated his immediate recusal.
"The new information, that Ashcroft had not only refused to recuse himself over a period of months, but also was insisting on being personally briefed about a matter implicating his friend, Karl Rove, represents a stunning ethical breach that cries out for an immediate investigation by the Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and Inspector General."
A Justice Department spokesman declined on Friday to say what action, if any, might be taken in response to Conyers' request.
Also of concern to investigators when they sought Ashcroft's recusal, according to law enforcement sources, was that a number among Ashcroft's inner circle had partisan backgrounds that included working closely with Rove. Foremost among them was David Isrealite, who served as Ashcrofts deputy chief of staff. Another, Barbara Comstock, who was the Justice Department's director of public affairs during much of Ashcroft's tenure, had previously worked for the Republican National Committee, where she was in charge of the party's "opposition research" operations.
"It would have been a nightmare scenario if Ashcroft let something slip to an aide or someone else they had in common with Rove . . . and then word got back to Rove or the White House what investigators were saying about him," says a former senior Justice Department official, familiar with the matter.
Although not reported at the time, when Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame investigation, Deputy Attorney General Comey said in a statement that the A.G.'s personal staff was also being fully recused in the matter.
Indeed, the appointment of Fitzgerald as special prosecutor and the recusal of Ashcroft came just three weeks after Comey, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was named to be deputy attorney general. Comey himself was no stranger to the issueeven before he took office.