Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Dissension surfaces in CIA agent's leaked-identity case

FIRST SIGNS The failure of US Attorney General John Ashcroft to recuse himself from the matter has drawn private criticism from the FBI and the Justice Department

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Several senior criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department and top FBI officials have privately criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft for failing to recuse himself or appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

The criticism reflects the first sign of dissension in the Justice Department and the FBI as the inquiry nears a critical phase. The attorney general must decide whether to convene a grand jury, which could compel White House officials to testify.

Partisan politics

The criminal-justice officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, represent a cross-section of experienced criminal prosecutors and include political supporters of Ashcroft at the Justice Department's headquarters here and at US attorney's offices around the country.

The officials said they feared Ashcroft could be damaged by continuing charges that as an attorney general with a long career in Republican partisan politics, he cannot credibly lead a criminal investigation that centers on the aides to a Republican president.

Democrats have criticized each step of the inquiry as tainted by Ashcroft's relationship with the White House. The investigation is trying to determine who told the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, as he wrote in July, that Valerie Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a CIA employee. Wilson was a critic of the administration's Iraq policies.

A senior Justice Department official acknowledged on Tuesday that the question of whether Ashcroft should step aside had stirred discussion in the department, but said that the dissent was limited and did not reflect the overall thinking of the career lawyers who are in daily control of the leak case. The official said that the option of recusal or referral to a special prosecutor remained "wide open."

The official said that the question of whether Ashcroft should step aside had been discussed among Ashcroft's senior advisers, but that so far none of the career lawyers on the case had recommended that the attorney general remove himself.

The official said Ashcroft had twice assembled his investigative team to exhort them to find out who leaked the identity of the CIA operative and to prosecute that person if possible.

"He's angry about this," the official said.

Dilemma

But Ashcroft faces the same political and legal dilemma that haunted his predecessors when the Justice Department has been forced to examine the conduct by senior officials in the White House or the Cabinet.

Janet Reno was forced to turn to independent counsels seven times during her nearly eight year tenure at the department. But her refusal to seek an outside prosecutor to investigate charges of campaign finance irregularities during former president Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996 permanently damaged Reno's standing in the capital.

Relationship

Ashcroft's relationship with the White House is far closer than Reno's was with Clinton. Ashcroft has closed ranks with Bush as in the war against terrorism which has altered nearly three decades in which most attorneys general and FBI directors sought to maintain a distance from the White House.

But Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller operate as crucial members of Bush's antiterror team, a closeness that complicates a criminal inquiry at the White House managed by Ashcroft and Mueller.

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