WASHINGTON -- After months of resisting Democratic demands that he step aside from the investigation into who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of a CIA agent, Attorney General John Ashcroft abruptly recused himself yesterday from any further oversight of the case, and his deputy immediately appointed a special prosecutor to take over.
Patrick Fitzgerald, a career prosecutor who is the US attorney in Chicago, will have the authority to make all prosecutorial decisions -- including issuing subpoenas, granting immunity to witnesses, or bringing charges -- without first consulting his bosses at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General James Comey announced.
"I told him my mandate was very simple: follow the facts wherever they lead and do the right thing all of the time," Comey said.
The investigation stems from the July disclosure in journalist Robert Novak's syndicated column that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent. Her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, has said her identity was revealed to punish him for publicly discrediting President Bush's claims about Iraq's alleged nuclear capabilities before the war. If deliberate, such an act would be a felony under federal criminal law.
The case has provoked widespread speculation in Washington that senior administration officials were involved, thereby giving Ashcroft a conflict of interest in overseeing the case.
In making yesterday's announcement, Comey disclosed that he has close ties to the special prosecutor. But he said that Fitzgerald, whom he described as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor," would be fully independent.
"I chose Mr. Fitzgerald, my friend and former colleague, based on his sterling reputation for integrity and impartiality," Comey said. "He is an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor. He is a man with extensive experience in national security and intelligence matters, extensive experience conducting sensitive investigations, and in particular experience in conducting investigations of alleged government misconduct."
Comey did not explain why Ashcroft chose to step aside now after absorbing criticism for months for his refusal to do so. He said only that the attorney general decided it was "the appropriate point in this investigation" based on the evidence gathered to date.
"The issue surrounding the attorney general's recusal is not one of actual conflict of interest that arises normally when someone has a financial interest or something," Comey said. "The issue that he was concerned about was one of appearance. And I can't go beyond that. That's the reason he decided, really in an abundance of caution, that he ought to step aside and leave me as acting attorney general for those matters."
But the timing could mean several things, said Paul Rosenzweig, a legal analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation who was a prosecutor with the office of former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"The Machiavelli in me says -- and I don't know if this is fair -- that it's because it's Dec. 30. If you want to do something you don't want anyone to notice, you do it now," he said. Or, he added, it could signal that the investigation is about to enter a new and potentially more touchy phase:
"As far as I understand it, the investigation until now has been conducted in a completely voluntary manner -- no one has been subpoenaed or forced to give up documents. It may be that we're about to enter the phase of the investigation where they start using coercive methods, and that would be a significant decision."
In that phase, Ashcroft might have been obliged to decide which of his colleagues would get subpoenas.
Although Comey would not comment about the investigation, law enforcement officials said the FBI team is going through "boxloads" of documents, including White House phone logs and e-mails, and has interviewed more than three dozen Bush administration officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and press secretary Scott McClellan.
Fitzgerald, 43, was described by colleagues as a no-nonsense career prosecutor who is not close to Ashcroft. His previous experience in high-profile political cases includes overseeing the investigation into former Illinois governor George Ryan, a Republican who pleaded not guilty this month to a 22-charge corruption indictment.
The son of an Irish immigrant father who worked as a doorman in Brooklyn, Fitzgerald graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College and received a Harvard law degree in 1985. After working briefly for a private law firm in New York, he joined the US attorney's office for the Southern District of New York and was named chief of the organized crime-terrorism unit in 1995.
Fitzgerald made his name with the prosecution of 12 men for a conspiracy that included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He also prosecuted four members of Al Qaeda charged in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. All were convicted and got life in prison.
In September 2001, he became US attorney in Chicago on the recommendation of Senator Peter Fitzgerald, Republican of Illinois, who is no relation. The senator said he had asked then-FBI director Louis Freeh for the name of someone from outside Chicago who would be fully independent.
Patrick Fitzgerald immediately set a tough, aggressive tone. He told reporters he would never hesitate to file charges if he believed they were warranted, even if there was no assurance of a conviction.
"As long as we know that we're right," he said. In his new assignment, Fitzgerald will have broad authority but his powers will not extend as far as that of the now-expired post of independent counsel established after Watergate. While such counsels were much freer to expand the scope of their investigations -- which is how Starr was assigned to probe President Clinton's Whitewater land deal but ended up looking into the Monica Lewinsky affair -- Fitzgerald must limit himself to his defined jurisdiction.
In addition, while independent counsels would report only to a panel of judges, Fitzgerald will continue to answer to Justice Department officials. Comey emphasized that he has delegated all his decision making oversight to Fitzgerald, though he acknowledged he could revoke that authority if he wanted to do so.
"Mr. Fitzgerald alone will decide how to staff this matter, how to continue the investigation, and what prosecutive decisions to make," he said. "In addition, in many ways, the mandate that I am giving to Mr. Fitzgerald is significantly broader than that that would go to an outside special counsel."
The move was called long overdue by Democrats who have called for Ashcroft to recuse himself and appoint a special outside counsel to ensure that the investigation would be "thorough and fearless" even if it touched powerful people in the administration. That the special prosecutor remained a Justice Department official, however, drew fresh fire.
Comey and Fitzgerald "are both Bush political appointees and carry the same baggage as John Ashcroft," said Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, a presidential candidate. "All three serve at President Bush's pleasure. . . . The president must direct the immediate appointment of a special counsel who is not a political appointee and who is in no way beholden to the fortunes of his administration."
But other Democrats praised Comey and Fitzgerald for their reputations for fairness.
"It is not everything we asked for, but it's pretty darned close," said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who was the first to call for an outside prosecutor. "In effect, this is very close to the special counsel we asked for. The autonomy that US Attorney Fitzgerald has been given and Deputy Attorney General Comey's previous assurance that he will report to Congress should any area of the investigation be blocked, in effect, makes US Attorney Fitzgerald a special counsel, albeit one within the Justice Department."
The conflict stems from a February 2002 trip Wilson took to the African nation of Niger to investigate reports that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium there. Wilson found no evidence of that, and filed a report saying so. But President Bush repeated the allegation in his January 2003 State of the Union address. After the war, Wilson went public with accusations that US officials exaggerated the case for invading Iraq. The White House eventually acknowledged that the claim should not have been included in the speech.
Soon afterward, Novak published a column that noted that Wilson's wife was a covert CIA agent. Wilson then asserted that Rove had helped plant, or at least condoned, the leak of that information. Rove denied any involvement.
Yesterday, Wilson praised Ashcroft's decision to step aside from the investigation.
"I have argued from the beginning that it was appropriate for the administration to consider John Ashcroft recusing himself, understanding that there are conflicts of interests that grow out of relationships that have gone on for a number of years," he told the Globe. "It is their own best interest to ensure there is no perception of a conflict of interest."
However, Wilson said it was not clear even to him that a law had been broken because the evidence must prove "willful intent or prior knowledge" that his wife's identity was classified.
Rosenzweig suggested that proving the identity of the leaker or leakers will probably be impossible if Novak continues to refuse to divulge his source. He predicted the assignment could turn into a thankless task for Fitzgerald.
"If he clears them, no one will believe him," Rosenzweig said. "If he indicts someone, they'll think he's pulling his punches and covering up for someone else above him. The only result that the press and the Democrats will accept is an indictment that says President Bush personally ordered this leak and gets him impeached. Otherwise, it's a no-win situation."
Globe correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report, which included material from the Associated Press.