A House panel threatened Tuesday to cite Attorney General Michael Mukasey with contempt of Congress unless he produces documents from an FBI interview with Vice President Dick Cheney regarding the leak of a CIA agent's identity.
Even as he issued the warning, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., also backed off his demand for a similar report on President Bush.
"The report of the FBI interview with Vice President Cheney needs to be produced, however," Waxman wrote in a letter to Mukasey, noting that the oversight committee is set to vote July 16 on whether to cite Mukasey with contempt of Congress.
"I strongly urge you to comply with the duly issued subpoena before then," Waxman said. "The committee cannot complete its inquiry into this serious matter without the report of the vice president's FBI interview."
There was no immediate indication that Mukasey would comply. He has made the case that any reports of interviews with Bush or Cheney on the subject would threaten "core executive branch confidentiality interests and fundamental separation of powers principles."
Bush has not declared the reports off-limits under executive privilege.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the agency is reviewing Waxman's letter, and referred to the department's June 24 letter to Waxman.
"We are not prepared to provide or make available any reports of interviews with the president or the vice president from the leak investigation," wrote Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keith B. Nelson. To do so, he added would set a precedent that could discourage White House officials from cooperating with future criminal investigations by DOJ.
Waxman's panel is one of two House committees talking tough to Mukasey about the White House's leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. The House Judiciary Committee also has subpoenaed some of the same documents from Mukasey, as well as information on the leak from other current and former administration officials.
Congressional Democrats want to shed light on the precise roles, if any, that Bush, Cheney and their aides may have played in the leak.
State Department official Richard Armitage first revealed Plame's identity as a CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak, who used former presidential counselor Karl Rove as a confirming source for a 2003 article. Around that time Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was criticizing Bush's march to war in Iraq.
Cheney's then-chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby also was involved in the leak and was convicted of perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI. Last July, Bush commuted Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence, sparing him from serving any prison time.
In his letter to Mukasey, Waxman noted that the prosecutor in that case, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, said in his closing remarks at the trial: "There is a cloud over what the vice president did" in the case. Libby told the FBI in 2003 that it was possible that Cheney ordered him to reveal Plame's identity to reporters.
"This would be an exceptionally serious breach of national security if it occurred," Waxman wrote.
Waxman said that Fitzgerald told the committee in a letter last week that "there were no agreements, conditions and understandings between" the prosecutor's office, the FBI or the White House regarding use of any such the interviews.
He noted that Cheney and his lawyers have said that he is not an entity within the executive branch.
"I am aware of no freestanding vice presidential communications privilege," Waxman wrote.
If not resolved, the dispute could land in federal court _ where another case is under way that pits Congress against the White House over testimony and documents from the Bush administration, which refuses to honor the subpoena.
If a judge weighs in, the case would be resolved well after Bush leaves office.