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Democrats call for independent probe of CIA leak

Republicans say no need for special counsel

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Democrats are demanding an independent probe into who leaked the name of a CIA operative.
Democrats are demanding an independent probe into who leaked the name of a CIA operative.

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The White House sees no need for an internal review into the leaking of a CIA operative's name
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Operative: A CIA employee who gathers intelligence covertly, either in the field or from agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The CIA calls the job "clandestine services officer."

Agent: Usually a foreign national contracted to gather intelligence in the field for the CIA.

Analyst: A CIA employee who evaluates intelligence gathered by operatives and agents; not a covert position.

White House
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
Joe Wilson
Robert Novak

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Reports that the White House leaked the name of a CIA operative -- the wife of an administration critic -- have sparked an intense, if predictable, furor on Capitol Hill: Democrats are demanding an independent investigation, while leading Republicans say the matter, though serious, is being overblown.

Democrats say the White House is going after critics. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland compared the alleged move to the "Nixon White House enemies' list." But Republicans say Democrats are merely looking for political advantage.

"No one's covering anything up. No one's obstructing anything," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.

President Bush said he did not know of anyone in his administration who leaked the information.

"If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it and we'll take appropriate action," he said.

Bush expressed confidence that the Justice Department would get to the bottom of the matter, saying "career" employees -- as opposed to political appointees -- will handle the investigation.

"I'm absolutely confident that the Justice Department will do a very good job," Bush told reporters, decrying "too many leaks of classified information in Washington."

The White House and Attorney General John Ashcroft have acknowledged that a criminal investigation has been launched into who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, former acting ambassador to Iraq. (Full story) Revealing a covert officer's identity without authorization is a federal crime.

Plame was identified by syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak in a July column as an "agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

Wilson has accused the White House's political office of leaking the information, describing it as a retaliatory act because of his criticism of the administration. Before his wife's name was leaked, Wilson faulted the administration for publicly citing disputed intelligence information on Iraq's nuclear ambitions.

Senate Democrats took to the floor Tuesday, calling on Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to investigate the matter. Their efforts were rebuffed by Republicans, who hold a majority in the chamber.

"Reports indicate that senior administration officials were allegedly motivated to engage in potentially criminal behavior, risking our national security and the lives of our intelligence agents, in order to punish someone who raised questions about the administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq," Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Carl Levin of Michigan and John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia said in a letter to Ashcroft.

Ashcroft refused Tuesday to answer questions about the matter during an unrelated news conference with reporters, but he confirmed that a "full investigation" was opened.

Democrats say Ashcroft should recuse himself, accusing him of partisan bias.

"I think there is a real concern about objectivity, about the degree to which they are willing to pursue this," Daschle said Tuesday.

Republicans, however, say it's the Democrats who are showing a bias, condemning the Justice Department before it has had a chance to investigate the matter.

Republicans have not defended the leak, but in their comments, they've shown a willingness to let the Justice Department investigate the matter.

"Let's give the Justice Department an opportunity to do their job and see what happens," Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN.

The chairman of the Republican National Committee accused Wilson on Tuesday of having his own motivations.

"What I've said is that Ambassador Wilson is clearly -- has a partisan history here," RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie told CNN.

He cited as proof Wilson's $1,000 campaign contribution to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of 10 Democrats running to replace Bush in 2004.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics, Wilson made such a contribution to Kerry on May 23. A further search showed Wilson also donated $1,000 to Bush on May 20, 1999.

Gillespie also said Wilson is affiliated with "organizations that are opposed to the president's agenda and anti-President Bush."

Wilson has denied a political motivation to his actions.

He told CNN on Monday that his first appointment was by a Republican.

"In actual fact, my first political appointee was as ambassador," Wilson said. "And I was appointed by George H.W. Bush, the first President Bush. So I really am apolitical in all of this.

Meanwhile, DeLay dismissed the call for a special counsel as a move coming from the Democratic "political playbook," and he poked fun at the charges of bias.

"Is Ashcroft too partisan?" he asked rhetorically. "I imagine those charges are coming from partisan people."

In various news releases, Democrats have resurrected a quote the first President Bush said in 1999 at the dedication ceremony for the George Bush Center for Intelligence.

"I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources," the former president said at the time. "They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."

CNN congressional producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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