Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft recused himself Tuesday from the investigation into whether White House officials blew a CIA operative’s cover by leaking her name to a journalist, and the Bush Justice Department appointed its first special prosecutor to take over the politically sensitive criminal probe.
Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey Jr. appointed Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and said he had given him full and independent authority to investigate the leak case and decide whether anyone should face felony charges for releasing classified information about CIA operative Valerie Plame.
The developments prompted speculation that the investigation by the FBI and Justice Department prosecutors has gained momentum, but Comey, as acting attorney general in the matter, declined to comment on the status of the case. Fitzgerald’s appointment won praise from some Democrats who had been critical of the administration’s handling of the investigation.
Comey said he made the decision to appoint Fitzgerald, a veteran terrorism prosecutor, close friend and former colleague, in consultation with Ashcroft. Comey said that he had given Fitzgerald such broad authority that even he could not tell him what to do.
“I told him that my mandate to him was very simple: Follow the facts wherever they lead, and do the right thing at all times,” Comey said at a Justice Department news conference. “And that’s something, if you know this guy, is not something I even needed to tell him.”
Fitzgerald, who once worked with Comey in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, said he would assume leadership of the investigation immediately, while also retaining oversight of federal prosecutors in the Chicago area. He has played a lead role in the investigation of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican who was indicted this month on corruption and tax fraud charges. Ryan has pleaded not guilty.
President Bush, vacationing near Crawford, Texas, said through a spokesman that he supported Fitzgerald’s appointment.
Bush “wants to get to the bottom of this,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “He said in September that he welcomes this investigation and has absolute confidence in the ability of the Justice Department to do a good job.”
Ashcroft’s decision to recuse himself became official Tuesday morning after a week or so of discussions with Comey, his new deputy.
Ashcroft was not present for the announcement and had no comment on the investigation or the appointment.
Already, investigators have interviewed dozens of people at the White House, CIA and other agencies as part of their effort to find out who leaked Plame’s identity to Robert Novak, who reported it last summer in his syndicated column, attributing the information to “two senior administration officials.”
Joseph C. Wilson IV, the former ambassador to Iraq and Plame’s husband, has publicly accused senior White House officials of disclosing his wife’s identity to discredit his claims that the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities to bolster its case for war.
Critics of the administration said Ashcroft’s political ties to Bush and his top aide, Karl Rove, made it impossible for him to conduct a credible investigation and that an outside special counsel was needed.
‘It’s ... Procedural’
One senior federal law enforcement official said Ashcroft’s decision should not be seen as any indication that the investigation was homing in on White House officials.
“I think it’s more procedural. There’s a point where you have to make certain prosecutorial decisions ... grants of immunity, declinations [to prosecute], that sort of thing,” said the senior official. “I haven’t heard that there is anything that has popped up.”
But Eric H. Holder Jr., deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, had a different view. Fitzgerald’s appointment, along with reports that another Justice Department prosecutor was added to the team recently, are clear signs that the investigation is gaining momentum, Holder said.
“It shows that there is some basis for this investigation to proceed. The appointment of Pat Fitzgerald is a particularly clear indication of that,” Holder said. Fitzgerald “would not be appointed with the expectation that he was just going to close this down, but that there is something there that needs to be examined thoroughly and a decision made as to what needs to be done.”
Comey said Ashcroft’s decision to recuse himself was not in response to any particular finding by investigators, but rather one made out of an “abundance of caution” and to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest -- as opposed to an actual one.
“I can’t go beyond that,” said Comey, “and the reason for that is obvious. I can’t tell you about the details of any criminal investigation because our goal is to make sure that anyone we’re pursuing doesn’t know what we’re doing, and also, anyone who might not be charged with a crime is not unfairly smeared.
“What happened is that the attorney general and I have periodically looked at these facts that have been developed and made a judgment, based on the totality of the circumstances,” he added.
Comey turned aside repeated questions on the state of the investigation, except to say that it was progressing rapidly. Appointing a sitting Justice Department prosecutor such as Fitzgerald would avoid delays caused by bringing in a nongovernmental prosecutor, who would need extremely high security clearances given the subject matter, he said.
“What I can tell you is that the investigation has been moving along very, very quickly, has been worked very, very hard and very, very well, and it reached a point where we simply thought these judgments were appropriate,” Comey said.
Comey cited Fitzgerald’s “sterling reputation for integrity and impartiality,” and described him as an “absolutely apolitical career prosecutor” with extensive experience in national security and intelligence matters, and in conducting sensitive investigations into alleged government misconduct.
The terms of his appointment allow Fitzgerald to keep on staff the career prosecutors and FBI agents who have handled the case so far. But he can also hire and remove staff, and decide whom to subpoena and prosecute, without consulting anyone at the Justice Department.
Fitzgerald’s appointment drew immediate praise from members of Congress and from the legal community.
Observers noted that both he and Comey are seasoned prosecutors with long-standing reputations for being aggressive, apolitical and well-versed in counterintelligence probes.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the most vocal critics of the Bush administration’s handling of the leak investigation, said Fitzgerald’s appointment “is not everything we asked for, but it comes darn close. And tonight, the American people can, as a result, feel more assured that there will be a full and thorough investigation, no matter where it leads.”
Sen. John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Ashcroft made the right decision. “Our intelligence agents need to know that we understand the sacrifices they make and that we will come to their defense when someone puts them at risk,” he said.
“This should give everybody a great deal of comfort,” said Holder, who oversaw the drafting of the special prosecutor regulations that now have been invoked by Ashcroft.
Fitzgerald is exactly the kind of experienced, nonpartisan prosecutor Holder said he envisioned to fix problems associated with the independent counsel statute that the regulations replaced.
But several critics, including some presidential candidates, said Ashcroft had not done enough to ensure that the investigation is not undercut by conflict of interest.
Comey and Fitzgerald “are both Bush political appointees and carry the same baggage as John Ashcroft,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). “None of the three is acceptable to conduct this investigation.”
“The public will not likely trust the results of an investigation headed by a political appointee,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).