WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department yesterday opened a criminal investigation into allegations that a Bush administration official exposed the identity of a CIA officer to embarrass her husband, a former ambassador critical of the US rationale for going to war in Iraq.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft resisted Democratic demands for a special counsel, calling his investigators "career professionals" and implicitly rejecting arguments that they would feel pressure to go easy on the Bush administration.
Addressing the issue for the first time, President Bush said he welcomed the probe, and White House employees were instructed to cooperate with investigators.
"I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information," Bush said in Chicago, where he was on a fund-raising trip. "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."
Bush said he is "absolutely confident that the Justice Department will do a good job."
Still, Democrats on Capitol Hill insisted an independent investigation was needed. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, immediately questioned why Justice allowed the White House to wait until yesterday morning before ordering staff to preserve documents that investigators might need.
"Did anything happen between last night and this morning?" Schumer asked. "I don't know."
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said it was "silly" to suggest that the delay indicated the Justice Department wanted to shield the administration from politically damaging exposures.
Schumer offered a measure that would have called on Ashcroft to appoint an outside counsel to take over the investigation. US Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, blocked a vote on it.
Republicans have said Democratic calls for a special counsel investigation run counter to their opposition to similar probes during the Clinton administration. Democrats pointed out those probes were authorized anyway and accused Republicans of hypocrisy in rejecting calls for a special counsel now that a president of their party is in the White House.
"If there was ever a case for an independent counsel, this is it," said US Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat in the House.
White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales ordered the president's staff to "preserve and maintain" all documents from Feb. 1, 2002, dealing with former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson and his wife's "purported relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency."
Gonzales also asked the administration to preserve records of Wilson's trip to Niger that month. That was when Wilson, at the CIA's request, investigated a report that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was seeking to buy nuclear materials from the African nation. Wilson found no evidence to support the report, but it nonetheless appeared in Bush's State of the Union address. The administration later admitted it was a mistake to include the information.
But Wilson continued criticizing the administration's use of prewar intelligence, and he has said the Bush team leaked his wife's identity in retaliation.
In July, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, a conservative who often supports the administration, wrote a column stating that "two senior administration officials told me that his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate." Despite a request from the CIA that he not do so, Novak named Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, and described her as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction."
The column quickly drew the attention of Schumer, who asked the FBI to investigate who gave Plame's name to Novak. Schumer and other Democrats saw identifying Plame as an attempt to embarrass Wilson and scare off others who would publicly oppose the administration's policies.
Wilson has said the White House attempted to leak his wife's identity to other reporters, as well. Gonzales's memo yesterday asked officials to preserve all their correspondence with Novak and two Newsday staff members, Knut Royce and Timothy M. Phelps, the paper's Washington bureau chief.
Wilson, scheduled to meet with House Democrats this morning, has backed away from his previous claim that Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was behind the leak. But he maintains that Rove did nothing to contain it.
Administration officials have said Rove did not leak Plame's name.
The potential scandal continued to rile Washington yesterday, as Democrats lined up to attack the administration.
"To quote George H.W. Bush, it's an `act of treason' to reveal the identity of intelligence sources," Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, said yesterday.
Kerry echoed the call for the investigation to be handled outside of the Justice Department, which he said "has proven itself too political. And in fact, John Ashcroft was once a client of Karl Rove."
Speaking on the Senate floor, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, described how FBI agents, at the behest of the Bush administration, asked that he submit to a lie detector test to help them uncover who leaked classified information that had been provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which Durbin is a member.
He argued that the Justice Department won't be as aggressive in pursuing White House officials. "Is . . . John Ashcroft willing to ask Karl Rove to submit to a polygraph?" Durbin asked.
It is a federal crime to identify an undercover CIA agent, though the nature of Wilson's wife's job has now come under some dispute. Novak on Monday said he has been told she is an "analyst," not an undercover agent. But Novak's column described her as an "operative," and the CIA was concerned enough about her being identified to ask the Justice Department to investigate.
According to Ashcroft's statement, his department's preliminary probe became a criminal investigation on Friday. A Justice Department official said a career chief in the counterespionage section of the Criminal Division made the decision to launch a full investigation. Ashcroft was told of the decision on Monday.
"The prosecutors and agents who are and will be handling this investigation are career professionals with extensive experience in handling matters involving sensitive national security information," Ashcroft said.