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Justice Dept. probes alleged leak of CIA operative's name

White House was source, woman's husband contends

WASHINGTON -- At CIA Director George Tenet's request, the Justice Department is looking into an allegation that a White House official leaked the name of an undercover officer to a journalist, administration officials said yesterday.

The operative's identity was published in July after her husband, former US ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly challenged President Bush's claim that Iraq had tried to buy "yellowcake" uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons, from Niger. Bush later backed away from the claim.

The intentional disclosure of a covert operative's identity can violate federal law.

A senior administration official said two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and revealed the occupation of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. That was shortly after Wilson revealed in July that the CIA had sent him to Niger last year to look into the uranium claim and that he had found no evidence to back up the charge. Wilson's account eventually touched off a controversy over Bush's use of intelligence as he made the case for attacking Iraq.

"Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.

Sources familiar with the conversations said the leakers' allegation was that Wilson had benefited from nepotism because the Niger mission had been his wife's idea. Wilson said in an interview yesterday that a reporter had told him that the leaker said, "The real issue is Wilson and his wife."

The official would not name the leakers for the record and would not name the journalists. The official said he had no indication that Bush knew about the calls. Columnist Robert Novak published the agent's name in a July column about Wilson's mission.

It is rare for one Bush administration official to turn on another. Asked about the motive for describing the leaks, the senior official said the leaks were "wrong and a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility."

Wilson, while refusing to confirm his wife's occupation, has suggested publicly that he believes Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, broke her cover. He said Aug. 21 at a public forum in Seattle that it was of keen interest to him "to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs."

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said he knows of no leaks about Wilson's wife. "That is not the way this White House operates, and no one would be authorized to do such a thing," McClellan said. "I don't have any information beyond an anonymous source in a media report to suggest there is anything to this. If someone has information of this nature, then he or she should report it to the Department of Justice."

Rove, asked to comment, responded through McClellan, who said of Wilson's comments: "It is a ridiculous suggestion, and it is simply not true."

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