White House staff put on notice
Sun Jan 2, 2005 15:40


White House staff put on notice
Democrats maintain pressure for special prosecutor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales sent a notice Friday to all White House employees instructing them to turn in copies of numerous documents for the ongoing probe into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to a newspaper columnist.

The notice called for the documents by 5 p.m. Tuesday. It was sent after receipt of a letter from the Justice Department Thursday night telling the White House to hand over all records that could be relevant to investigators. An official familiar with that letter said it sets October 10 as a deadline.

The Justice Department also informed the White House that it may begin interviews with senior White House officials at any moment.

The first interviews will likely be conducted at the White House, and everyone interviewed will be asked to take an oath, government officials said. Anyone found to lie could be charged with providing false statements.

Secretary of State Colin Powell described Friday what he has been told.

"We have been asked by the Justice Department, those who are conducting this investigation, to make ourselves available for any purpose that they have," Powell said. "We have been asked to take a look at our calendars and documents to see if we have any information that is relevant to this inquiry, and we obviously will cooperate fully with the Department of Justice in getting the answers that they seek, as the president has directed us to do."

Law enforcement sources have confirmed that "do not destroy" letters have also been sent to the State and Defense Departments as part of the investigation. The letters, like previous ones to the White House and CIA, ask recipients not to destroy phones logs, e-mails and other relevant documents.

The State Department issued a memo to senior staff Friday, asking them to "preserve and maintain" all documents and records that might assist in the Justice Department investigation into the possible unauthorized disclosure of classified information to the media.

"Documents in the possession of the Department of State and its employees may contain information relevant to our investigation," the memo said, according to a copy of the text issued to reporters.

The Justice Department is trying to determine who told syndicated columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Novak has said her identity was revealed by a senior administration official.

Novak, a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," was asked Friday on CNN's "Inside Politics" whether he has been contacted by investigators but said for the first time in his career, he can't answer a direct question.

"On the advice of counsel, I am asked not to answer that question," he replied.

Plame is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that the Bush administration overstated the threat posed by Iraq during the months before the U.S.-led invasion in March. Wilson claims someone in the White House leaked his wife's name to discredit him and intimidate other critics.

Last week, Wilson suggested that senior White House adviser Karl Rove may have been involved in the leak of his wife's identity. Novak said in his column that two senior administration officials confirmed it was Wilson's wife, Plame, who suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the claims that uranium had been sold to Iraq.

Rove's ties to Attorney General John Ashcroft have led some lawmakers, including one senior Republican, to say he should consider recusing himself from the investigation. Rove was a political adviser during Ashcroft's gubernatorial and Senate campaigns in Missouri.

Asked whether Rove's relationship with Ashcroft would present a conflict of interest, senior Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania, said Ashcroft should consider stepping aside.

Specter noted that the investigation is not directly controlled by Ashcroft, but by career prosecutors reporting to FBI Director Robert Mueller. Mueller's 10-year tenure insulates him from White House pressure.

Calls for Ashcroft to recuse himself also came from Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. Other Democrats have urged that Ashcroft name a special prosecutor to handle the case.

Schumer's press secretary said Justice Department rules hold that a federal prosecutor cannot issue subpoenas of news media phone records without the express written consent of the attorney general. Since media phone records may end up being subpoenaed, Schumer believes Ashcroft should step aside.

But at a Republican news conference, Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee, said he thinks the Justice Department can handle the investigation. Calls for a special prosecutor or for Ashcroft's recusal "have a partisan flavor to them," he said.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the department is keeping its options open.

Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee met with Wilson and other lawmakers Thursday to determine if hearings on the matter were necessary.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia "thinks it's pretty clear that information was leaked that shouldn't have been leaked," committee spokesman David Marin said. "What's not clear yet is whether a crime was committed."

The "immediate aim" of the lawmakers is to monitor the Justice Department investigation and make sure it's thorough and objective and to keep an eye on how the White House handles the situation," Marin said

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday no White House officials have been subpoenaed in the investigation. He said FBI agents have not interviewed any members of the White House staff, but cautioned that he would not necessarily know if White House staffers were being interviewed individually.

CNN Correspondents John King and Kelli Arena and Producers Terry Frieden, Steve Turnham and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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