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US Justice Department Launches Probe Into White House Leak of CIA Agent's Name - 2003-09-30

The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into whether anyone at the White House revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative to a Washington journalist. But opposition Democrats are demanding that an independent investigator be appointed to handle the case.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan says the president has ordered his staff to cooperate fully with the Justice Department probe. White House lawyers have ordered staff members to preserve records related to the investigation, such as telephone logs and e-mails.

Investigators will try to determine if anyone in the White House was behind the leak of the identity of a covert CIA operative to Washington journalist Robert Novak, who published the information in July.

The woman's husband is former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a prominent critic of the intelligence used by the administration before the war in Iraq. Ambassador Wilson was instrumental in undermining the administration's claim that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa, an assertion President George W. Bush made in his State of the Union Address in January.

News of the Justice Department probe did not seem to sit well with some opposition Democrats. Senator Charles Schumer of New York is pushing for the appointment of a special independent investigator who would conduct the probe separate from the Justice Department. "It is to allow professional law enforcement to do the job unfettered. So that they know they will not pay a price if they pursue it completely and fully," he said.

But Attorney General John Ashcroft told reporters at the Justice Department that he has confidence in those who have been assigned to investigate the leak. "The prosecutors and [FBI] agents who are, and will be, handling this investigation are career professionals with extensive experience in handling matters involving sensitive national security information and with experience relating to investigations of unauthorized disclosures of such information," he said.

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan says he has no evidence to indicate any White House involvement in the leak that appeared in a Robert Novak column in July. Mr. Novak says he obtained the information during the course of an interview with a senior Bush administration official. But he says the official did not call him to leak the information.

Disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence operative is a violation of federal law punishable by up to 10 years in jail.