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Democrats seek new probe into leak

WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders demanded yesterday an independent investigation to determine whether senior White House officials illegally leaked the identity of an undercover CIA agent to exact revenge on her husband, one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.

Led by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, scores of lawmakers and presidential candidates called for an independent inquiry -- the first since the independent counsel law expired in 1999. They argued that the review now being conducted by the FBI could not be objective in a Justice Department led by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, a Bush appointee.

"We do not believe that this investigation of senior Bush administration officials, possibly including high-level White House staff, can be conducted by the Justice Department because of the obvious and inherent conflicts of interests involved," Daschle wrote in a letter to President Bush and Ashcroft cosigned by three Democratic senators. "Therefore, we strongly urge the immediate appointment of a special counsel to investigate this matter."

The White House rejected the calls, saying that the Justice Department is the "appropriate agency" to conduct the inquiry and that the president's staff would fully cooperate.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied that the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was involved in disclosing the information, which reportedly was relayed to at least six journalists. McClellan said Rove, who controls the White House's political operation, was not to blame. "I've made it very clear that he was not involved, that there's no truth to the suggestion that he was," McClellan said.

But former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, whose wife's identify was first disclosed in a July 14 article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, told the Globe in an interview yesterday that "I have full confidence that [Rove], at a minimum, condoned it and did nothing to stop it." Wilson said at least one reporter told him that Rove said after the Novak column was published that Wilson's wife was "fair game."

A Justice Department official said a preliminary investigation is underway. "That's to determine whether there needs to be a full-blown investigation," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Publicly revealing the identify of an undercover intelligence official is a violation of federal law, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Exposing secret agents is considered a breach of national security because it could endanger not only them, but also their sources.

CIA Director George Tenet requested the investigation, officials said, after the agency completed an internal review of the potential consequences of identifying Wilson's wife, who sources said works in the CIA's operations directorate gathering intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not say whether the review concluded that sources were jeopardized.

Wilson had been sent by the CIA to investigate a claim by British officials that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. A former acting ambassador to Iraq, Wilson said he found no evidence supporting the charge. Later, after it was repeated in Bush's State of the Union address, Wilson came forward to dispute it -- and then continued criticizing the White House's case for the invasion of Iraq. Wilson said yesterday that he did not know the motive for leaking his wife's identity. But he said he could only surmise that it was to silence him or prevent others from speaking out against the administration's Iraq policy. "It appears to have just been for pure revenge," Wilson said. "That is reprehensible."

Novak, speaking on CNN, where he is a cohost, said yesterday: "Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this. In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson's report when he told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing. As a professional journalist with 46 years' experience in Washington, I do not reveal confidential sources."

Democrats were quick to criticize the administration.

If true, the leak would constitute "one of the most dastardly, despicable things I have seen in my more than 20 years in Washington," said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York. It "speaks lengths about how far someone will go to stifle dissent."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, joined those calling for an independent investigation, saying, "How can anyone possibly trust this administration to investigate and prosecute itself for this shameful incident?"

On the campaign trail, Senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and Bob Graham of Florida, all Democratic presidential candidates, called for an independent probe, as did former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

"The administration should not play politics with this matter," said retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, another presidential contender. "This issue is too important for political gamesmanship or to be managed by the John Ashcroft Justice Department."

Republicans were more muted.

"If that happened, that is a very wrong thing to happen," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said of the leak. Since the nation no longer has an independent counsel law, which called for a panel of judges to appoint a special prosecutor in cases where it was warranted, a special counsel is the next best option, officials said. According to federal law, the attorney general can appoint a special counsel when there is a possible conflict of interest, extraordinary circumstances, or it is deemed to be in the public interest. Susan Milligan of the Globe staff also contributed to this story.

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