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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Intelligence Leak

Aired September 30, 2003 - 13:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: To the Justice Department now, Attorney General John Ashcroft addressing the investigation into a leak of a CIA operative.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... from the Central Intelligence Agency a request for a criminal investigation concerning a possible violation of federal law regarding an alleged unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

After a prompt review of this request, the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice, with the assistance of the FBI as the lead investigative agency, opened a full investigation, and that was last Friday.

The prosecutors and 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.

Yesterday, the Department of Justice informed the White House counsel's office of this investigation and requested that the White House preserve all documents that might be relevant to the investigation to the extent not already done in the normal course of their activities. A similar request has been made of the CIA.

Now, such requests are standard procedures in investigations of this type.

Due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation of alleged criminal violations, I will not be making any further comment regarding this matter at this time.

QUESTION: Without going into the matter any more fully, could you just describe why you decided not to name a special counsel?

ASHCROFT: Let me go over the last statement that I made.

Due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation of criminal violations, I will not be making any further comment on this matter at this time.

QUESTION: Can you at least say what assurances you can give people that the matter will be handled independently without...

ASHCROFT: Are there other questions today?

Yes?

QUESTION: I was wondering, outside the three-part program that the secretary of transportation described, are there any other substantive changes to implement this Hazardous Materials Initiative?

ASHCROFT: Well, we've talked about assembling the kind of...

PHILLIPS: Well, Attorney General John Ashcroft was quite serious when he said no further comment. But he did say after prompt review, that indeed, the Justice Department is now going to initiate a criminal investigation into the leak that named a wife of a diplomat. We talked about that, a former ambassador who had revealed flaws in pre-war intelligence, they are now saying that definitely they're going to go forward and investigate this leak on a CIA operative.

Justice correspondent Kelli Arena, she's been listening to this. Obviously, he doesn't want to go any further, Kelly. A couple reporters there even tried to get a little bit more information, and he was dead serious when he said, here we go, we're going to have an investigation and that's it.

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, and he cited the criminal nature of the investigation.

But privately, administration officials at this point have told us that Justice at this point is not inclined to appoint a special counsel and feels that it is appropriate to handle it within the department. A special counsel, by the way, would have to ultimately report to the attorney general anyway. It's not like it would be an independent counsel, and we've heard a lot about that, but that goes away.

So the current situation is, here's where we go from here, you have FBI agents, mostly from the Washington field office, who work in the corruption squadds, along with career prosecutors from the Justice Department. Now when I say the word career, that's important, because these are not political appointees. These are people who work at the Justice Department and have worked under various political administrations. So that's where the investigation will be done, between the FBI and career prosecutors within the Justice Department.

And as you heard the attorney general say, the first step is to ask everyone to hold on to any relevant information, not to send anything through the shredder, not to delete any e-mails that may be helpful and useful in pursuing who may have leaked the investigation.

Now, interestingly, Kyra, we acquired testimony, it was closed testimony, by Janet Reno before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

And in this testimony, Reno had said that the focus of the leaked investigations is not on the reporter who received the information, but it is on the pool of inviduals who may have had access to that information. And because that pool of people can be quite large, that, in fact, most leak investigations are closed without ever finding out where the leak came from. And that, we're reading, is part of a policy decision to ensure free press, that it not be, it says here, unduly chilled in the exercise of its news-gathering function.

So quite an endeavor. Hundreds of interviews will be conducted by the FBI as this goes forward. This can take several months, if not more than a year.

PHILLIPS: All right, Justice correspondent, Kelli Arena, thank you.

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