A criminal probe into the leak of a CIA officer’s name could go beyond the White House, as the Justice Department was preparing Thursday to tell officials in other federal agencies to preserve relevant documents and records.
Officials at federal agencies said they were expecting letters from the Justice Department urging them to save e-mail, correspondence and other documents that could pertain to the investigation. The White House and CIA already have gotten similar instructions.
At the State Department, a spokesman said the agency had yet to receive a letter but “it would not be unexpected.”
“And if we do, we’ll cooperate fully,” the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Word of the widening probe came amid growing questions about the close relationship between top political appointees at the Justice Department and the White House. Democrats have been calling for Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel, saying his relationship with President Bush and Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, taint the prospects for an impartial investigation.
Investigators hope to identify who leaked to reporters the name of an undercover CIA officer who’s married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, after Wilson debunked a claim in Bush’s State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger.
Disclosing the name of a CIA undercover operative is a felony.
In interviews, Wilson has said he thinks Rove is the source of the leak or had authorized it in retaliation for the criticism.
At a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for Ashcroft to recuse himself from the process.
Although the case is being handled by seasoned career lawyers in the Justice Department’s counterespionage section, Schumer said federal regulations required Ashcroft to sign off on any subpoenas issued to members of the media for telephone records, a very real prospect in this probe because of its focus on news leaks.
“This situation cries out for Attorney General Ashcroft to be as far away as possible,” Schumer said.
But he said possible conflicts went deeper than Ashcroft and Rove, who was hired as a political consultant for three of Ashcroft’s political campaigns in Missouri, two for governor and one for U.S. senator.
Acting Deputy Attorney General Robert McCallum was inducted into the secret Skull and Bones club at Yale University with Bush. David Israelite, the Justice Department deputy chief of staff, was political director of the Republican National Committee in 1999 and 2000. Solicitor General Ted Olson was the lead counsel for Bush during the Florida election recount in 2000.
White House officials dismissed Schumer’s charges and reiterated their faith in Ashcroft and Justice Department staffers to conduct a fair investigation.
“I would remind you that the career Justice Department officials are the ones leading this investigation,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “These are the individuals with (vast) experience and are in the best position to get to the bottom of this.”
Schumer’s complaint Thursday was just one in an escalating series of attacks on the White House by congressional Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates.
Three female Democratic senators introduced gender politics to the brewing scandal, portraying the leak as an assault on working women and families.
“The fact that someone’s wife would be threatened and put in great jeopardy, and potentially her career eliminated as a result of this, has outraged many, many women,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Stabenow and Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., in calling for an independent investigation of the leaks, said the issue would resonate especially with women, a majority of whom tend to vote Democratic.
At the White House, McClellan dismissed the Democratic broadsides as typical Washington politics.
“Unfortunately, there are some that are looking through the lens of political opportunism,” he said. “There are some that are seeking partisan political advantage. I don’t need to go into names. We all know who they are.”