Former CIA officer Valerie Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, have filed a civil lawsuit, accusing Vice President Dick Cheney and others of violating their constitutional rights in connection with Wilson's criticism of the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq.
The lawsuit alleges that Vice President Cheney, presidential adviser Karl Rove and former Cheney chief of staff Lewis Scooter Libby conspired to retaliate against Ambassador Wilson by leaking his wife's identity as a covert CIA officer.
Christopher Wolf is the attorney representing the Wilsons.
"The defendants engaged in a secret whispering campaign designed to discredit, or, as Special Counsel [Patrick] Fitzgerald has put it, to 'punish' Ambassador Wilson," said Mr. Wolf.
Joe Wilson wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in 2003 that cast doubt on Bush administration claims that Iraq was seeking nuclear material in Niger.
President Bush referred to an intelligence report on the matter during his 2003 State of the Union Address.
A week after Wilson's critique appeared, his wife, Valerie Plame, was mentioned in an article by columnist Robert Novak that revealed her position with the CIA.
The lawsuit alleges that Cheney, Libby and Rove secretly spread rumors that Plame used her position at the CIA to send her husband to Africa to check out reputed efforts by Iraq to obtain nuclear material.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating whether Wilson and his wife were the subject of a political retribution campaign by the White House, something administration officials deny.
The lawsuit does not specify any amount of monetary damages being sought. The suit will likely face some major hurdles in the courts, including legal precedents that the president and vice president are generally immune from lawsuits while in office.
Valerie Plame says she is aware of the difficulties in bringing suit against the vice president, and says she and her husband decided to proceed with what she called heavy hearts.
"I would much rather be continuing my career as a public servant than be a plaintiff in a lawsuit," she said. " But I feel strongly, and justice demands, that those who acted so harmfully against our national security must answer for their shameful conduct in court."
Plame retired from the CIA earlier this year.
Her husband, Joe Wilson, says his criticism of the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq was simply an effort to, in his words, hold my government to account.
"This remains a nation of laws, and no administration official, however powerful, is above the law. I have confidence in the American system of justice, and this suit is about the pursuit of justice," said Mr. Wilson.
There was no immediate comment from Vice President Cheney's office. A spokesman for Bush adviser Karl Rove dismissed the lawsuit as utterly without merit. Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald recently informed Rove's attorney that he will not be charged in connection with the CIA leak case.
At a recent news conference, President Bush expressed relief about Rove's status, but would not comment further.
"There is an ongoing trial here and I know the temptation is, not the temptation, but you will keep asking questions during the course of the trial, but I am not going to comment beyond that," said Mr. Bush.
The civil lawsuit will not affect the criminal investigation. Former Cheney aide Lewis Libby goes on trial early next year on charges of lying to, and trying to mislead investigators, allegations he denies.