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The leak that went awry

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The making of a coverup, like the making of a sausage, is not always pleasant to watch. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who rarely recuses himself from anything, has suddenly decided to get out from under the investigation of who leaked the identity of a CIA covert officer. And Mr. Ashcroft, who rarely misses his turn on camera, left it to Deputy Attorney General James Comey to make the announcement - and also to disqualify himself.

Why would the Justice Department pass off what looks like a quintessentially Washington investigation to the US attorney in Chicago? Perhaps for that very reason. Fingering CIA officer Valerie Plame after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson exploded the administration's African-uranium-to-Iraq theory, smacked of typically Washingtonian bureaucratic revenge.

Who in the White House could have picked up the telephone and made that vengeful call to columnist Robert Novak? The FBI has presumably interviewed a lot of officials and subpoenaed a lot of telephone records for the week of the leak last June. Mr. Comey says that what led to the attorney general's withdrawal was "an accumulation of facts." If those facts point to someone in the White House who has a personal relationship with the attorney general, it could present a perceived conflict of interest.

As US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald took over the investigation, word was leaked to The Washington Post that maybe no crime was committed in the first place.

The Post's source pointed out that while it is a felony under the 1982 Agents' Protection Act to identify a federal agent undercover, this does not apply if the leaker did not know that Ms. Plame was an undercover operative.

Nice try! The original Novak column last July that started all the fuss emphasized the importance of his scoop because "the agency has never before declassified that kind of information."

White House spokesman Scott McLellan says that no one wants to get to the bottom of this more than President Bush, and that the president has directed staff members to cooperate with the investigation. But, if everyone on the staff were cooperating, the mystery probably would've been solved by now.

Who took it on himself or herself to "declassify" a sensitive national security secret? Stay tuned for the 2004 chapter in the story of the leak that went awry.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.


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