WASHINGTON – Progress is being made in determining who leaked the name of an undercover CIA official's name, Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said Thursday, as he sought to rebut criticism of his decision to retain control of the investigation.
In his most extensive remarks to date, Ashcroft repeated that he had not ruled out appointing a special counsel or recusing himself, as some Democrats have demanded and even some Justice officials not involved in the probe have begun to suggest.
But the attorney general told reporters that the Justice Department's counterespionage unit, led by 30-year career prosecutor John Dion, is handling the case with "promptness and completeness and professionalism."
"I believe that we have been making progress that's valuable in this matter," said Ashcroft, who did not provide any specifics about advancements in the case. "And we will devote every energy that's available, and every resource that's available at the highest level of intensity ... to reach the bottom of this."
Senior advisers to Ashcroft have discussed whether the attorney general should step aside, and aides acknowledge that some Justice officials not directly involved in the probe have advocated that he do so.
But Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said no prosecutors or officials directly involved in the case -- or with access to key information -- have recommended a special counsel or recusal.
Democrats have heaped criticism on Ashcroft's decision to keep the investigation within the Bush administration. They argue that his status as a member of Bush's Cabinet, plus past political ties to top Bush adviser Karl Rove, make it impossible for Ashcroft to run an impartial investigation of a potentially damaging probe of the administration.
"From conflicts of interest to inexplicable delays, the actions so far of the attorney general and the Justice Department make it far less likely that the culprit will be found," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Investigators are trying to determine who leaked the name of Valerie Plame (search), a CIA undercover officer married to former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson (search). Syndicated columnist Robert Novak (search), who published the name, said he got it from two senior administration officials. Wilson has said he believes Bush administration officials leaked his wife's name in an attempt to discredit his contentions that the White House was manipulating intelligence to justify war with Iraq.
The White House has turned over thousands of documents to the Justice Department, including phone logs, e-mails and other records. The FBI has also been conducting interviews with administration officials and asked the departments of State and Defense and the CIA to preserve relevant records.
In a letter Wednesday to Schumer and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez said that to help ensure the integrity of the probe these actions are not being regularly made public. The senators had questioned whether the lack of publicity might compromise the investigation.
"We have chosen instead to take our direction from the Department of Justice without the need to publicize our prompt compliance with every request," Gonzalez wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press.
Aides say Ashcroft is briefed regularly on the progress of the investigation and has directed prosecutors to tell him promptly if any administration officials fail to cooperate in the probe.
"I am directing and will do everything in my power to make sure that this investigation is conducted in a way which is professional, thorough, prompt and complete," Ashcroft said.