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Ashcroft steps down from CIA leak probe

Attorney General John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft

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John Ashcroft
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Justice Department names special prosecutor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself and his office staff from the investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name and the Justice Department named a special prosecutor Tuesday.

The announcement was made by Deputy Attorney General James Comey, Ashcroft's top deputy.

Ashcroft's recusal means that Comey automatically becomes the acting attorney general for this case and has the authority to determine how the case is investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted.

The official gave few details about the recusal, saying only that Ashcroft was stepping down from the investigation and it would now be headed by the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into who had disclosed the identity of a CIA officer whose husband had challenged President Bush's claims about Iraq's weapons threat.

Democrats demand recusal

Democrats in Congress had demanded that Ashcroft, who was appointed by Bush to head the Justice Department, should step aside and name an outside counsel to run the probe.

The investigation stemmed from the disclosure in July that the wife of a former U.S. envoy in Iraq and Gabon, Joseph Wilson, was an undercover CIA officer specializing in weapons of mass destruction.

Wilson has charged that the Bush administration officials made public his wife's name in an act of revenge after he accused the White house of exaggerating the weapons threat from Iraq, Washington's main justification for going to war.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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