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Democrats Seek Special Counsel

With the White House engulfed in a political firestorm, top Democrats are calling for the appointment of a special counsel and Congressional hearings to find out who in the Bush administration leaked the name of a secret CIA operative to the media, allegedly in retaliation for criticism of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.

In a letter to President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) demanded a special counsel to probe the matter, though White House officials and Congressional Republicans were immediately dismissive of the request.

Nevertheless, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and several other top Democrats in that chamber are also expected to issue a similar call today, all in an effort to turn up the heat on the White House.

Daschle was joined by Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.), Carl Levin (Mich.) and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) in requesting a special counsel. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had earlier asked for a special counsel.

In the letter to Bush, Daschle and his colleagues wrote, “We do not believe that this investigation of senior Administration officials, possibly including high-level White House staff, can be conducted by the Justice Department because of the inherent and obvious conflicts of interests involved.”

The letter added: “Therefore, we strongly urge the immediate appointment of a special counsel to investigate this matter.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, however, was cool to the special counsel request even before Daschle had sent his letter.

“At this point, I think the Department of Justice would be the appropriate one to look into a matter like this,” McClellan told reporters earlier in the day. “There are a lot of career professionals at the Department of Justice that address matters like this.”

But the decision on whether to do so is completely up to Ashcroft, and Justice Department officials are giving no signal so far that the former Missouri Senator will agree to do so.

Senate Republicans were also skeptical of the need to bring in an outside prosecutor to handle the investigation, but, in a sign of the rapidly changing political dynamic, were not defending the Bush administration from the leaking allegations and, instead were calling for a full investigation by the Justice Department.

“We can’t have a retribution being an outing of an undercover agent for our country, ever,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “That should never be done, ever. That’s a crime and it shouldn’t be done.”

Describing the allegations as “very serious,” Hutchison said the Justice Department should be allowed to proceed with an investigation. “We ought to see how it goes,” she said.

Hutchison’s remarks came after she and about 10 Senate Republicans met with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice in Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office. Rice refused to take reporters’ questions following the meeting.

The gathering focused strictly on Bush’s request for an $87 billion supplemental bill on continuing military operations and reconstruction in two major war fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The leak allegations never came up in the meeting, Hutchison said, “just the supplemental and how it would be put together.”

Vice President Cheney will meet with Senate Republicans today.

Meanwhile, Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, implied that there has been an ongoing, broader investigation of this and other intelligence leaks.

“Don’t assume that we’re oblivious,” said Rockefeller. “Don’t necessarily assume that this is the beginning of the process.”

White House officials yesterday denied the charge that Karl Rove, Bush’s top political strategist, was involved in leaking the name of Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and a CIA agent, to conservative columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.

Novak referred to Plame by name in a July 14 article criticizing Wilson’s February 2002 trip to Niger, which was undertaken at the behest of CIA officials to determine if former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime was attempting to buy uranium from the African nation. In his column, Novak said his source for Plame’s identity was “two senior administration officials” seeking to retaliate for Wilson’s public criticism of Bush’s use of the Niger allegations as a rationale for the Iraq invasion. The administration was later forced to retract the Niger claim although Cheney still stands by it.

After Novak’s column, CIA Director George Tenet wrote to Ashcroft in late July asking for the Justice Department’s help in finding out who leaked Plame’s name. Democrats complain that Justice has done nothing to uncover the leakers so far.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who came to national attention for his handling of former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton while he was a Member of the House, said the professional staff at the Justice Department should continue to handle the probe for now.

Graham, however, added that if the allegations of a deliberate leak were true, it constituted “a serious crime.”

“Losing one’s job would be the least of their concerns,” Graham said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, wrote to his GOP counterpart, Rep. Tom Davis (Va.), asking for hearings. Waxman cited the “over 1,000 subpoenas” issued by former Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) to the Clinton administration, subpoenas that “concerned allegations with similarities to the recent allegations relating to the Bush White House.”

A spokesman for Davis said his boss would talk to Waxman soon about the matter, although he noted that the Virginia Republican believes the probe “should be conducted by career FBI agents.”

The furor over the alleged leak has already reignited calls for the reauthorization of the independent counsel statute, which expired on June 30, 1999.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who is running for president, on Monday said he would introduce legislation to revive the much criticized law that formally empowered the lengthy investigations aimed at the Clinton administration.

Lieberman, the top Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said he would reintroduce the legislation “to reassure a skeptical public that criminal investigations of those at the highest levels of power will be insulated from the political influence of the very people under suspicion.”

With the expiration of the independent counsel statute in June 1999, the sole authority for appointing a special counsel rests with the attorney general. Congress has no formal role in making a request and the mechanism for the appointment by a special three-judge panel no longer exists.

On July 9, 1999, the Justice Department —then under control of then-Attorney General Janet Reno — issued regulations governing the appointment of special counsels.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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