Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Bush expresses determination to find source of leak

NATIONAL SECRETS The American president is apparently trying to defuse criticism that he has lacked interest in how a CIA agent was identified


US President George W. Bush said on Monday that the unauthorized disclosure of an undercover CIA officer's identity was a "very serious matter" and "a criminal action" as the White House announced that 500 of its 2,000 employees had responded to a Justice Department demand for documents as part of an investigation into the source of the leak.

The announcement and Bush's adamant words reflected a tougher public approach by the White House to the leak. The administration has been criticized by Democrats for not treating the disclosure of the classified information more forcefully.

"This is a very serious matter, and our administration takes it seriously," Bush said in response to a question from a reporter during a joint White House news conference with President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya.

Bush, in his most extensive comments about the leak to date, urged the person who disclosed the information to come forward.

"I'd like to know who leaked, and if anybody has got any information inside our government or outside our government who leaked, you ought to take it to the Justice Department so we can find the leaker," the president said.

Bush added that "we're talking about a criminal action" and that he looked forward "to finding the truth."

The White House had given its employees until 5pm yesterday to comply with a Justice Department demand that they turn over "all documents that relate in any way" to the disclosure of the CIA officer's identity.

Investigators say they want access to electronic records, phone logs, documents and diaries that relate to former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV, a trip he took to Niger last year, his wife's relationship with the CIA, or any contact with the syndicated columnist Robert Novak and two other reporters who wrote about Wilson.

The investigation is focused on finding who leaked the identity last summer of Wilson's wife, a CIA undercover officer named Valerie Plame. Wilson, who undertook a mission for the CIA last year to investigate whether Iraq had tried to buy uranium for its nuclear weapons program from Niger, concluded in a New York Times Op-Ed article on July 6 that it had not, and that the administration had twisted evidence to make the case for war in Iraq.

Eight days later, Novak wrote that it was Wilson's wife who had suggested sending him on the mission, implying that Wilson's trip was of minor importance.

Novak identified Plame, and attributed the information to "two senior administration officials." Wilson then accused Karl Rove, the president's chief political aide, of involvement in leaking the information to Novak to intimidate Wilson into silence. But he has since backed off and said that Rove at least condoned the leak.

Two reporters for Newsday, Timothy Phelps, the Washington bureau chief of the newspaper, and Knut Royce, are part of the investigation because of an article they wrote in July that said "intelligence officials" had confirmed and expanded on Novak's account.

In response to Wilson's statement and questions from reporters, the White House has said three people were not sources for the leak: Rove; Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff; and Elliott Abrams, the director of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that the office of the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, was to remain open until 11pm Monday to receive responses from employees to the Justice Department demand. Some of the responses, McClellan said, were likely from people who simply checked off an entry on a form provided by the White House.

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