Ashcroft recuses himself from CIA leak probe
Attorney General John Ashcroft, with United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick J. Fitzgerald, right, who was named special prosecutor.
CNN's Kelli Arena reports on the recusal of Attorney General John Ashcroft from the probe into who may have revealed the name of a CIA operative.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey announces Ashcroft's recusal.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft removed himself Tuesday from a Justice Department investigation into who may have revealed the name of a CIA operative to the media and a special prosecutor was named to head up the probe.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey said Ashcroft reached the decision to recuse himself on his own after long consideration.
"The issue surrounding the attorney general's recusal is not one of actual conflict of interest that arises normally when someone has a financial interest or something. The issue that he was concerned about was one of appearance. And I can't go beyond that," Comey said at a news conference.
"The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts and evidence developed at this stage of the investigation," he said. "I agree with that judgment."
Ashcroft's recusal means that Comey, second in command at the Justice Department, automatically becomes the acting attorney general for this case and has the authority to determine how the case is investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted.
Comey said he has appointed Patrick Fitzgerald -- currently the Chicago-based U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois -- as the special prosecutor to take over the investigation.
Comey described Fitzgerald as "Elliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor."
"He is the perfect man for this job," Comey said. "He is an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor. He is a man with extensive experience in national security and intelligence matters."
Comey would not say if the probe thus far has identified the source of the leak that identified the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson as a CIA operative.
In July, newspaper columnist and CNN Commentator Robert Novak reported the identity of Wilson's wife as a covert CIA operative in a column in the Chicago Sun Times.
It is a felony offense to reveal the name of a CIA operative, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
The leak infuriated Wilson, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration policy in Iraq who had discredited intelligence allegations on the supposed movement of nuclear materials to Iraq.
Tuesday, Wilson told CNN he was pleased with the latest development.
"The fact that the attorney general recused himself indicates that the administration wants to avoid the potential perception of a conflict of interest. And that's a good thing," he said. "This is crime against the country, not against me. The issue is how do you investigate a crime against the country in the best way."
He added, "I have said all along that so long it is in the hands of career professionals, I would expect them to do the job as well as they possibly can."
Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson
Wilson and several Democratic allies have charged the leak came from the White House in a political effort to embarrass Wilson. Novak said he learned of the CIA connection from "two senior administration officials."
Asked about Ashcroft's decision, Novak said he had no comment.
Democrats -- including Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard Durbin of Illinois -- had called on Ashcroft to recuse himself in recent months, and pushed for the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the investigation.
Government sources have said in the past that White House senior adviser Karl Rove is among those who have been interviewed by the FBI as part of the investigation.
Wilson had said Rove might have been responsible for the leaking of his wife's identity.
Wilson later backed off that assertion, but still said Rove might have condoned the leak. Through a White House spokesman, Rove has denied any role in the leaking of that information.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller D-West Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Ashcroft "made the right decision."
"The special prosecutor hopefully will now have the independence needed to follow this investigation to the end, wherever that may lead," he said.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey
Others blasted Ashcroft for waiting so long to make his decision.
Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic presidential hopeful from North Carolina, said the decision came "far too late."
"President Bush knows how to get what he wants inside his White House, yet for months, his administration has somehow failed to find the person responsible for this dangerous and destructive leak," he said. "This is completely unacceptable."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, another presidential hopeful, noted that Fitzgerald is a Bush appointee who carries the "same baggage as John Ashcroft."
"As usual, what the Bush Justice Department has done is a half measure and nowhere near good enough to restore public confidence in this tarnished agency," Kerry said.
Daschle said, "Today's news is as welcome as it is overdue."
He said, "For the sake of America's national security, I hope the administration will give the new counsel its full cooperation and the resources needed to quickly get to the bottom of this urgent matter, and swiftly bring to justice the person or persons responsible."