WASHINGTON — The Justice Department launched a full-blown criminal investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA officer, and President Bush directed his White House staff today to cooperate fully.
The White House staff was notified of the investigation by e-mail after the Justice Department decided late Monday to move from a preliminary investigation into a full probe. It is rare that the department decides to conduct a full investigation of the alleged leak of classified information.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales told the staff: "You must preserve all materials that might in any way be related to the department's investigation." Presumably that would include telephone logs, e-mails, notes and other documents.
The disclosure of the intelligence officer's identity by syndicated columnist Robert Novak came shortly after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, undermined Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa. In what turned out to be a major embarrassment, Bush acknowledged he could not back up his statement.
White House Scott McClellan said Gonzales spoke with Bush about the investigation about 7 a.m. EDT today.
"We welcome this investigation. No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than the president of the United States," McClellan said.
Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One, McClellan said Bush "has directed the White House to cooperate fully. The president wants to get to the bottom of this as much as anyone and believes it should be pursued to the fullest extent."
Senior staff members were told of the investigation at their morning staff meeting, and then Gonzales sent an e-mail to all the staff notifying them of the probe.
Even before the Justice Department investigation was announced, Democrats were calling for the appointment of a special counsel to insure impartiality. McClellan said the decision rests with the Justice Department.
The department notified the counsel's office about 8:30 p.m. Monday that it was launching an investigation but said the White House could wait until the next morning to notify staff and direct them to preserve relevant material, McClellan said.
The investigation stems from a CIA complaint two months ago that one of its agent's identities had been disclosed. Justice gets about 50 such complaints from the CIA each year about leaks of classified information and few ever get beyond a preliminary investigation.
The White House said that leaking classified information was a serious matter that should be "pursued to the fullest extent" by the Justice Department. But White House officials denied it leaked the CIA officer's identity.
"There's been nothing, absolutely nothing brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement, and that includes the vice president's office as well," McClellan said.
In particular, McClellan said it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Karl Rove, Bush's top political operative, was involved, as Wilson once charged. "He wasn't involved," McClellan said of Rove. "The president knows he wasn't involved. ... It's simply not true."
From Capitol Hill to the presidential campaign trail, Democrats called for the appointment of a special counsel. Four Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint a person of "unquestioned independence and impartiality."
"We do not believe that this investigation of senior Bush administration officials ... can be conducted by the Justice Department because of the obvious and inherent conflicts of interests involved," said the letter, also signed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Joseph Biden, D-Del. and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
White House officials, at their senior staff meeting, were urged to contact the Justice Department if they had relevant information, officials said.
Novak said on CNN that his report was based on conversations with two senior administration officials while he was looking into Wilson's trip to Africa to investigate the uranium story. The officials told Novak that Wilson's wife had suggested the mission for her husband, the columnist said.
He said the CIA confirmed her role and "asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else."
Wilson backtracked Monday, saying he had not meant to imply that Rove "was the source or the authorizer, just that I thought that it came from the White House, and Karl Rove was the personification of the White House political operation."
But Wilson also said in a telephone interview that "I have people who I have confidence in, who have indicated to me that he (Rove), at a minimum, condoned it and certainly did nothing to put a stop to it for a week after it was out there."