Ashcroft's Interest

Attorney General John Ashcroft received numerous detailed briefings last year regarding the criminal investigation of the unauthorized disclosure of a CIA agent's identity, during which he was told specific information relating to the potential culpability of several close political associates in the Bush administration, according to senior federal law-enforcement sources.

Among other things, the sources said, Ashcroft was provided extensive details of an FBI interview of Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's chief political advisor. The two men have enjoyed a close relationship ever since Rove advised the Attorney General during the course of three of Ashcroft's political campaigns.

The briefings for Ashcroft were conducted by Christopher Wray, a political appointee in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division, and John Dion, a 30-year career prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation at the time. Neither Wray nor Dion returned phone calls seeking comment for this story.

The briefings raise questions about the appropriateness of Ashcroft's involvement in the investigation, especially given his longstanding ties to Rove. Senior federal law-enforcement officials have expressed serious concerns among themselves that Ashcroft spent months overseeing the probe and receiving regular briefings regarding a criminal investigation in which the stakes were so high for the Attorney General's personal friends, political allies, and political party. One told me, "Attorneys General and U.S. Attorneys in the past traditionally recused for far less than this."

One senior federal law-enforcement official said that there appeared to be no restrictions regarding the extent of information provided Ashcroft: "Whatever the FBI knew, the Attorney General was able to know within days if he wanted to."

Rove's interview with the FBI was highly significant, sources said, in that although Rove adamantly denied having leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, he admitted to having disseminated the information -- after it appeared in the news media -- to journalists, political activists, and other administration officials in an attempt to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. At the time, Wilson was raising questions about the veracity of intelligence information used by President Bush in making the case to go to war with Iraq. Rove, through an assistant, declined to comment for this story.

In addition, sources said, Ashcroft received a briefing regarding copious notes maintained by I. Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. The notes, later turned over to investigators, detailed the inner workings of the White House Iraq Group. The ad hoc group was set up by senior administration officials to devise strategies to win over U.S. and international public opinion to support going to war with Iraq. Besides Libby, other regular key participants included Rove; Nicholas E. Calio, who was at the time the White House legislative liaison; and Deputy National Security Council Advisor Stephen J. Hadley.

Some of those notes described efforts to discredit Wilson by the White House Iraq Group, including Rove, in July of last year as the group was struggling to counter Wilson's allegations that the White House had exaggerated the potential nuclear threat posed by Saddam Hussein to the United States. It was during that time that two senior administration officials leaked information to columnist Robert Novak that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA operative.

A federal law-enforcement official said that "there was serious discussion at the highest levels of the Justice Department" as to whether it was "proper" or a "good idea" for Ashcroft to receive briefings not only regarding what Rove had told the FBI, but also what other evidence existed, such as Libby's notes, that might corroborate or contradict Rove's account.

The briefings for Ashcroft abruptly came to a halt last December, several officials said in interviews, when Ashcroft, bowing to political pressure from congressional Democrats and responding to concerns raised by career Justice Department officials, named a special counsel to take over the Plame investigation.

The special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is also the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, was tasked to determine whether any Bush administration officials violated federal law in disclosing that Plame was a covert CIA officer to columnist Novak.

A recent flurry of activity by Fitzgerald has fueled speculation that the prosecutor is completing his work, either to bring criminal charges or close out his probe without seeking any criminal charges. On June 24, President Bush was interviewed in the Oval Office for more than an hour by Fitzgerald and several members of his staff. Vice President Cheney had earlier been interviewed at length by investigators. And on June 18, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzalez testified for more than an hour before a federal grand jury empanelled to hear evidence in the case.

Despite these developments, Fitzgerald's intentions currently remain one of the most tightly held secrets in Washington. There have been scant leaks to the media as to the findings of his investigation so far, and senior White House officials are reeling from the implication that they know nothing more than rank speculation about a highly charged criminal investigation during an election year. In my article that appeared on Alternet.org first disclosing that Ashcroft was being briefed about the Plame investigation, Mark Corallo, the director of public affairs at the Justice Department, confirmed Ashcroft had received "status updates" regarding the probe from John Dion, a career Justice Department prosecutor. Corallo defended the briefings at the time, telling me: "The attorney general wants this to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and to that end, he wants to be informed of the progress of investigators."

In a routine appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee last October, Wray, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division, also confirmed that he had briefed Ashcroft regarding details of the Plame investigation. But during that appearance, Wray denied that Ashcroft's failure to recuse himself was compromising the integrity of investigators.

"I can assure you that it has been made painfully clear to everyone involved that no punches are to be pulled in this investigation and that anybody who thinks that we are going to be pulling any punches in this investigation doesn't know the lawyers and the agents working on the investigation very well," Wray told the committee.

Among those expressing such concerns in private, sources said, was James B. Comey, the Deputy Attorney General. The sources said that Comey pressed his own view and that of other senior Justice Department officials -- that Ashcroft should recuse himself and name a special counsel to take over the probe entirely -- during private discussions with Ashcroft last winter, when Comey was new to his position, the sources said.

In describing the pressure that Ashcroft recuse himself and name a special counsel to take over the probe, one senior official said: "He [Ashcroft] wasn't shoved. And it is probably too strong to say he was pushed. But he was strongly prodded to do what he did. There were respectful discussions. He was provided with some strong recommendations. We should leave it at that."

In announcing the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Plame case last December 30, however, Comey portrayed the decision to name an independent counsel as one made by Ashcroft: "The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation. I agree with that judgment."

Murray S. Waas is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Read more at waasinfo.com.

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