WASHINGTON – The Justice Department (search) has launched a preliminary probe into whether White House officials leaked a CIA agent's identity, officials confirmed Monday.
Justice officials said the agency's criminal division and the FBI will speak with officials from the CIA and possibly other agencies to determine if the facts warrant a full-blown investigation.
The preliminary inquiry was brought after reports emerged this weekend that CIA Director George Tenet (search) had asked the Justice Department to look into allegations that officials in the White House revealed the name of agent Valerie Plame (search). Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson (search), who challenged Bush administration assertions earlier this year that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium from an African nation.
Wilson was sent to Niger (search) last year to check out the claim that Iraq's deposed leader had sought to purchase yellowcake uranium. He could not confirm the allegation, and in a July editorial in the New York Times challenged 16 words in President Bush's State of the Union address that said Saddam had made inquiries about uranium in Africa. One week after his column appeared, his wife's name was published in a newspaper column.
The White House said the information it used in the president's speech came from British intelligence, which stands by its report. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan (search) added that the intelligence community stands by its National Intelligence Estimate, which quoted the British report.
McClellan added that if someone had leaked the name of Wilson's wife, that person should be fired. However, he said the White House has no indication that such a leak occurred.
"The president believes that leaking classified evidence is a serious matter and should be investigated to fullest," McClellan said. "The president expects everyone in his administration to adhere to the highest standard of conduct."
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) added that the White House is willing to have the Justice Department investigate the charges.
"I know nothing of any such White House effort to reveal any of this, and it certainly would not be the way that the president would expect his White House to operate. My understanding is that in matters like this, a question like this is referred to the Justice Department for appropriate action and that's what is going to be done," Rice told Fox News Sunday.
Democrat Calls for Special Counsel
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., (search)who urged the FBI to open an investigation in July when the agent's name first came out in a newspaper column, says the Justice Department should appoint a special counsel to investigate the charges since DOJ has a conflict of interest.
"I don't see how it would be possible for the Justice Department to investigate whether a top administration official broke the law and endangered the life of this agent. Even if the Department were to do a thorough and comprehensive investigation, the appearance of a conflict could well mar its conclusions," Schumer said in a statement Monday.
Democratic presidential candidate and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) also said that the president should find out who is responsible for the leak and Congress should investigate the matter as well.
An undercover agent specializing in weapons of mass destruction, Plame's identity was revealed in a July article written by Robert Novak (search). Over the weekend, the story broke that Novak was one of a half dozen reporters called by two high-level White House officials who said Plame had abused her position to get her husband the Niger job.
The reports said Plame's identity was disclosed as part of an attempt to discredit Wilson and intimidate other critics of the administration.
Wilson too said that he thinks revealing his wife's identity was payback for his report, though he has backed off allegations that one of the officials leaking her identity was presidential senior adviser Karl Rove.
Wilson's report led to the political debate over whether the administration had trumped up claims of Iraq's weapons program to justify the war internationally. On Sunday, Rice defended the intelligence used in the build-up to war, and denied charges by some lawmakers who said the nation's intelligence agencies used "snippets of information" based on old judgments by U.N. weapons inspectors who left Iraq in 1998.
"There was enrichment of the intelligence from 1998 over the period leading up to the war. And nothing pointed to a reversal of Saddam Hussein's very active efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, to have very good programs in weapons of mass destruction," Rice said.
The CIA has denies the claims by congressional Intelligence Committee members. Spokesman Bill Harlow said lawmakers have not taken the time to conduct a comprehensive investigation, and the agency stands fully behind its findings and judgments.
Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency acknowledged that one source of its information on Iraq was unreliable. Agency officials confirmed to Fox News that most of the intelligence obtained from Iraqi exiles was inaccurate, and information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had proved to be no help at all.
Several of the exiles were introduced to U.S. officials by the current head of the Iraqi ruling council, Ahmed Chalabi.
Gephardt has called for a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the strength of pre-war intelligence, and said as president, he would appoint one.
Unauthorized disclosure of an undercover intelligence agent's identity is punishable by fines of up to 10 years in prison.
"Leaking the name of a CIA agent is tantamount to putting a gun to that agent's head. It compromises her safety and the safety of her loved ones, not to mention those in her network of intelligence assets. On top of that, it poses a serious threat to the national security of this nation," Schumer said.
Wilson: Motive Would Be Clear
Wilson told The Associated Press on Sunday that he doesn't believe the CIA would ask for an investigation if it did not think a crime might have been committed. He said if White House officials were to blame, their motives were easy to decipher.
"It's pretty clear to me that, knowing that they could not shut me up because I had already told my story, the purpose for doing this was to intimidate others and keep others from stepping forward," Wilson said.
Fox News' Wendell Goler, Anna Stolley and Julie Asher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.