White House vows help in CIA leak probe
But administration won't seek independent investigation
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House will cooperate with the Justice Department in its initial inquiry into who leaked the classified identity of a CIA operative, but will not launch an internal probe and will not ask for an independent investigation, a spokesman said Monday.
The CIA operative in question, Valerie Plame, is the wife of a former U.S. ambassador who had been critical of the Bush administration's handling of intelligence on Iraq.
"The president believes leaking classified information is a very serious matter and it should be pursued to the fullest extent by the appropriate agency and the appropriate agency is the Department of Justice," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.
He said the White House would cooperate with any probe, but said the Justice Department has not made any requests for information.
The Justice Department would not comment on whether it is looking into the case. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice confirmed Sunday the Justice Department was asked to look into the matter.
Former Ambassador Joe Wilson has said he believes the White House was behind the leak of the identity of his wife to newspaper columnist and CNN contributor Robert Novak as retribution for Wilson revealing flaws in prewar intelligence that said Iraq was trying to buy "yellowcake" uranium ore in Africa.
In an interview Monday with CNN, he described the administration as "acting like schoolyard bullies, pulling the hair of a little girl."
Plame was described as a CIA employee in a July column by Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times. CNN has been unable to reach Plame.
"Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this," Novak said Monday CNN's "Crossfire," which he co-hosts. "There is no great crime here."
The leak could constitute a felony. According to the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, a federal employee with access to classified information who is convicted of making an unauthorized disclosure about a covert agent faces up to 10 years in prison and as much as $50,000 in fines.
'A dastardly act'
"The leaking of the name of a CIA [operative] is a dastardly act," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, told CNN Monday.
"It not only endangers the name of an agent who has put his or her life on the line for America, [but also] all their operatives and security ... It's a despicable thing to do. And some newspapers report that it was the White House that did it."
McClellan said that if anyone at the White House leaked Plame's identity, he should be fired, and pursued to the "fullest extent."
"No one was authorized to do this. That is simply not the way this White House operates and if someone leaked classified information it is a very serious matter," he said.
McClellan said the White House has no firsthand knowledge of a Justice Department investigation of the matter. No one at the White House, he said, has been contacted or asked to be questioned, or sought counsel for defense on the matter.
He rejected a call from some Democrats for an independent investigation, perhaps a special prosecutor, to avoid conflict of interest with Bush political appointees at the Justice Department.
"Of course in any matter like this we will cooperate with the Department of Justice," said McClellan. "There has been no information brought to us or that has come to our attention beyond the media reports to suggest there was White House involvement."
Wilson said at one point that he believes the person who broke his wife's cover was Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser and political strategist.
But Wilson on Monday backed away somewhat from specifically naming Rove. He told CNN there was "excess of exuberance" on his part in naming Rove as the source, but he said he believed Rove condoned the leak and did nothing to stop it. Wilson also stood by his claim that the leak came from the administration.
"I think it comes out of the White House political office," Wilson said, adding that the publication of his wife's identity came one week after he had written a critical article in The New York Times about the administration's handling of intelligence on Iraq.
McClellan said he discussed the matter with Rove and feels confident that accusation of Rove's involvement is "simply not true."
"Only a limited number of people would even have access to classified information of this nature," added McClellan.
Wilson visited Niger in early 2002 on behalf of the CIA to investigate a British intelligence report alleging Iraq had tried to buy significant quantities of yellowcake there and in other African countries for possible use in nuclear weapons.
Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat with expertise in African affairs, reported finding no evidence to support the claim.
Earlier this year, Wilson criticized Bush for including in his 2003 State of the Union speech the notorious "16 words" citing the British report.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush said in the address.
It was later revealed the British report was based in part on forged documents, and Bush backed away from the statement.
Wilson told CNN last month the leak about his wife was directly connected to his public criticism of the administration for including the uranium report in the speech after he had already discredited it.
"The idea, it seemed to me, in going after me and then later making these allegations about my wife, was clearly designed to keep others from stepping forward," said Wilson, who was acting ambassador to Iraq in the months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"I don't know if that's true or not, but you can be sure that a GS-14 or 15 with a couple of kids in college, when he sees the allegations that came from senior administration officials about my family ... in the public domain, you can be sure that he's going to be worried about what might happen if he were to come forward," Wilson said.
GS-14 or GS-15 refers to the federal General Schedule pay scale. GS-15 is the highest level, with annual salaries generally ranging from $95,000 to $125,000.
CNN's Dana Bash and David Ensor contributed to this report.