WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) would not likely appoint a special counsel to investigate the charge that a Bush administration official leaked the name of a secret CIA employee to reporters, another administration official told Fox News on Wednesday.
Only two circumstances might prompt the attorney general to make such an appointment, the official explained: either a clear conflict of interest, for example if the current investigation were to focus on an official to whom Justice staffers reported; or if the affair were to become such a political issue that it would be "in the public interest" to hand off the probe to an outside team.
Democratic lawmakers have been calling for a special counsel (search) to investigate the charges of a leak, saying otherwise the probe will be compromised.
"Questions will arise almost daily regarding the fairness and completeness of how this investigation is being conducted," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter to Ashcroft sent Wednesday. "Any questionable action — or inaction — carries with it a conflict-of-interest taint. The easiest way to dispel that taint is to appoint a special counsel."
The Justice Department announced Friday it would conduct a full criminal investigation. But Schumer complained that the White House was not told to preserve relevant evidence until Monday evening, leaving four days between the opening of the investigation and the time the information was requested.
Ashcroft has not entertained questions about appointing a special counsel.
After the Independent Counsel statute (search) expired in 1999, the Justice Department created new rules allowing the attorney general to appoint a special counsel, who would be selected from outside the U.S. government to investigate unusual cases involving high-ranking executive-branch officials or potential conflicts of interest.
The special counsel has the same powers as a U.S. attorney, including subpoena power and the ability to convene a grand jury. Any exceptions to that authority must be reported by the attorney general to Congress after the probe has concluded.
The official told Fox News that "it may be in the public interest" to appoint a special counsel and to "do it quickly," but that appointing one would slow down the investigation considerably.
A special counsel would have to be named and given the usual background checks, he explained, which could take from several weeks to some months. Staff would then be hired, but would have to undergo background checks as well.
The counterespionage section of the criminal division of the Justice Department, the so-called "spycatchers" conducting the current probe, is made up of career employees and already has the appropriate clearances.
The probe stems from allegations that a senior administration official gave the name of a secret CIA employee to reporters in an effort to discredit the employee's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (search), who has criticized the evidence used by the Bush administration to justify war against Iraq.
The CIA employee's name was revealed in a July column written by Robert Novak (search).
An official told reporters over the weekend that the woman's name was revealed to intimidate Wilson, who had criticized President Bush for including in his January State of the Union address British intelligence claims that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Africa.
Newspaper reports have said other journalists, all of whom declined to be named, were contacted at the same time as Novak by administration officials with information about Wilson's wife's position at the CIA.
Novak in his column named Wilson's wife as a CIA "operative" — i.e., an officer operating undercover in a foreign country. Novak has since said he misinterpreted the information, which he said he learned during the course of an interview, and that she may have been an "analyst," generally meaning a regular CIA staffer who works at agency headquarters.
Wilson was sent by the U.S. government in 2002 to conduct an eight-day fact-finding mission to Niger, the suspected source of the uranium. He reported back that he believed the claims had no merit.
A week before his wife's name appeared in print, Wilson had penned an opinion piece in The New York Times criticizing the administration's use of the British intelligence.