By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
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.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Comey had pledged that he would personally see to it that the independence and integrity of the investigation would not be compromised in any way.
At one point during those hearings, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited the close relationships between Ashcroft and Rove, and also between Ashcroft and others also likely to be questioned during the leak probe. Schumer asked Comey:
"How could there not be an appearance of a conflict given the close nexus of relationships?"
"I agree with you that it's an extremely important matter," Comey replied.
Within days of his taking office, several career Justice Department prosecutors took their own longstanding concerns to Comey, telling him that perhaps it would be best for Ashcroft to recuse himself, the same legal sources said. A smaller number also advocated the appointment of an outside prosecutor to take over the matter completely.
The combination of Ashcroft's close relationship with Rove, the omission of critical information from the FBI by Rove during his initial interview with agents, that Ashcroft had been briefed about that interview in particular, and the-then recent appointment of Comey, all allowed for a forceful case being made by career Justice Department employees be made that the attorney general should step aside and a special prosecutor be named.
But says one government official familiar with the process: "When Ashcroft was briefed on Rove, that ended the argument. He was going to be removed. And there was going to be a special prosecutor named."
The new disclosures as to why Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame case and why a special prosecutor was named are important for a number of reasons:
First, they show that from the very earliest days of the criminal probe, federal investigators had a strong belief and body of evidence that Rove and perhaps other officials might be misleading them.
Second, the new information underscores that career Justice Department staffers had concerns that the continued role of Ashcroft and other political aides might tarnish the investigation.
Finally, the new information once again highlights the importance of the testimony of journalists in uncovering whether anyone might have broken the law by disclosing classified information regarding Plame. That is because both Rove and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheneywho are at the center of the Plame investigationhave said that they did not learn of Plame's employment with the CIA from classified government information, but rather journalists; without the testimony of journalists, prosecutors have been unable to get to the bottom of the matter.
Several journalists have testified to Fitzgerald's grand jury, but New York Times correspondent Judith Miller, who has refused to identify her confidential sources, was ordered to jail by Federal District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan on July 6, where she remains.
The initial criminal investigation began well before the case was turned over to Fitzgerald in December 2003. It started shortly after conservative columnist Robert Novak first identified Plame as an undercover CIA officer, in a July 14, 2003, column.
The column was written during a time when senior White House officials were attempting to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was then asserting that the Bush administration had relied on faulty intelligence to bolster its case to go to war with Iraq. Wilson had only recently led a CIA-sponsored mission to the African nation of Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein was covertly attempting to buy enriched uranium from the African nation to build a nuclear weapon.
Wilson reported back to the CIA that the allegations were most likely the result of a hoax.
When Wilson sought out White House officials, believing they did not know all the facts, he was rebuffed. He then went public with his criticism of the Bush administration. It was then that senior administration officials began their campaign to discredit Wilson as a means of countering his criticisms of them.
Rove and Libby, and to a lesser extent then deputy National Security Council (NSC) adviser Stephen J. Hadley (who is currently Bush's NSC adviser), directed these efforts. Both Rove and Libby discussed with Novak, Cooper, and other journalists the fact that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA, and that she was responsible for sending him to Niger, in an effort to discredit him.
The manner by which Rove and Libby learned of Plame's employment at the CIA before they shared that information with journalists is central to whether any federal criminal laws regarding classified information were violated. Rove and Libby have reportedly claimed they learned of the information from journalists. Rove in particular told FBI officials that he first learned of Plame's employment with the CIA from a journalist, but drew their suspicions when he claimed that he could not recall the journalist's name.