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Dems blast White House on leak probe

Senators reiterate call for special prosecutor to investigate

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Four leading Democratic senators accused the White House on Thursday of bungling a probe into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name in what the outed operative's husband calls an attempt at political intimidation.

In a letter to President Bush, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and three others said the White House has made "at least five serious missteps" in the leak probe so far.

The biggest is leaving Attorney General John Ashcroft in charge of the probe rather than naming a special prosecutor to handle it, as they have called for previously, they said.

"We are at risk of seeing this investigation so compromised that those responsible for this national security breach will never be identified and prosecuted," the senators wrote.

The letter was signed by Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, one of the first lawmakers to call for an investigation of the leak.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House or the Justice Department.

The White House has said it is cooperating with the investigation, which was sparked by the publication of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name in a July 14 piece by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" program. Novak attributed the report to "senior administration officials."

The disclosure came about a week after Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, a retired career diplomat and former ambassador, wrote a New York Times op-ed article suggesting the Bush administration distorted intelligence to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March.

The White House later said the reference to British intelligence reports that Iraq tried to purchase uranium in Africa should not have been included in Bush's State of the Union speech.

Wilson has said the White House leaked his wife's name to retaliate against him and to intimidate other critics who might consider coming forward, a charge administration officials have disputed .

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales will review staffers' records of any contacts related to the matter before turning them over to investigators.

The White House calls the procedure standard, but some Democrats suggest it would allow Gonzales to keep track of damaging information or the focus of the investigation.

Other missteps the senators cited in their letter Thursday include:

• Failing to order employees to preserve evidence until three days after the Justice Department probe began.

• Not delivering that order to all staff until the following day.

• Waiting another day to extend that order to the Pentagon and the State Department.

In addition, the senators wrote, White House press secretary Scott McClellan's declaration that three senior officials were not responsible for the leak "has now put the Justice Department in the position of having to determine not only what happened, but also whether to contradict the publicly stated position of the White House."

McClellan said Tuesday he had questioned White House political adviser Karl Rove, National Security Council aide Elliot Abrams and Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff about the leak and was told "they were not involved."

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