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White House leak investigation trickles forward

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Confidentiality/Privilege    

White House leak investigation trickles forward

  • Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into who leaked the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, while syndicated columnist Robert Novak holds firm that he won’t reveal his confidential sources.

Jan. 6, 2004 — Justice Department investigators have asked White House staff members to sign a form that would waive all existing agreements of confidentiality made with members of the media. The move, first reported last week by NBC News, is the latest twist in a nearly three-month-old investigation into who disclosed the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

White House officials say the waiver forms were given to staff members about a month ago, while media observers speculate that the move is a precursor to subpoenaing Novak, 72.

Subpoenaing a reporter to obtain information for an investigation is extremely rare. According to Justice Department guidelines, a journalist can be subpoenaed only after all other potential sources of the information are exhausted. Furthermore, federal prosecutors must negotiate with the journalist before issuing a subpoena.

Revealing the name of a covert CIA operative is a federal crime. However, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982 says such disclosure is a felony only if the person who leaked the information knew the operative was working undercover.

In a column published in July, Novak cited “senior administration officials” in identifying Plame as the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had steadfastly criticized the Bush administration’s justifications for going to war in Iraq.

Wilson was sent to West Africa by the CIA in February 2002 to look into allegations that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger. Wilson concluded one month later that the claims were unfounded, yet President Bush still made the allegation in his State of the Union speech on Oct. 7, 2002. The White House later acknowledged that the president’s statement was erroneous.

The Justice Department has been looking into the disclosure of Plame’s identity since September, but its inquiry became a formal criminal investigation on Dec. 26. Four days later, Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the case “based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation,” Deputy Attorney General James Comey Jr. announced at a press conference.

Democrats had long demanded that Ashcroft recuse himself from leading the investigation, given his close political ties to the Bush administration.

Comey immediately named Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, as special counsel. Fitzgerald was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2001, and ultimately works for Ashcroft. Fitzgerald will continue his duties in Chicago, his office said, while leading the Justice Department’s investigation.

Novak, host of the TV talk show “Crossfire” who also writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, has repeatedly said he won’t reveal the name of his confidential sources because “that is part of the journalist’s code.” The Washington Post has reported that as many as six reporters, from its newspaper among others, were contacted by administration officials in July looking to reveal Plame’s identity and her relationship to Wilson.

Time magazine was the only other media company that published the name at the time. Jim Kelly, managing editor of the magazine, told the Post in October that his magazine will protect its confidential sources.


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