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A shifting probe?


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If there are culprits in the White House who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, they may now be dependent on reporters to protect their identities.

The Administration's critics have accused it of exposing Plame in retaliation for comments by her husband former Ambassador Joseph Wilson that undercut Bush's assertions about Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

Divulging an agent's ID knowingly is a federal crime, which is why the FBI is probing the affair. Its agents have interviewed and scoured the e-mails, calendars and phone logs of several dozen White House staff members, including Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove.

Now the agency is asking Administration officials to sign a declaration absolving reporters of the obligation to keep conversations on the matter confidential. Lawyers say this is a likely precursor to calling journalists such as conservative columnist Robert Novak the first to reveal Plame's identity before a grand jury.

Justice Department rules require that reporters be subpoenaed only as a last resort. The staffers' permissions will lay the legal groundwork for that step. Novak's lawyer, James Hamilton, had no comment.

Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the probe last week, and federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago was appointed to head it up.

It's still likely that no charges will be filed when the investigation winds down. Whatever the outcome, it will test the adage that, in politics, the cover-up is more damaging than the crime.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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