TERENCE SMITH: Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped aside Tuesday from the inquiry into whether a Bush administration official leaked a CIA operative's name to a reporter. Deputy Attorney General James Comey said Ashcroft had removed himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Comey spoke yesterday at the Justice Department.
JAMES COMEY: 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.
I agree with that judgment. And I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation. 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 the crime is not unfairly smeared.
TERENCE SMITH: Comey named Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois, to serve as special counsel.
We get more on this story now from Elaine Shannon of Time magazine. Elaine, welcome.
ELAINE SHANNON: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: This investigation has been going on for three months. Give us a little sense of what it's about, what the charge is and what's been accomplished so far.
ELAINE SHANNON: It all has to do with a trip that ambassador former ambassador Joe Wilson took on behalf of the CIA to the nation of Niger because there were allegations that needed to be checked out about whether Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger.
Later Wilson criticized President Bush for using these allegations in a speech leading up to war because he said they checked out the allegations, they weren't so. Then Bob Novak and other reporters noted that Wilson's wife had worked at the CIA as an operative and suggesting that this was the reason that he took the trip not that he was the best person for it but he just had that connection. This infuriated the clandestine service at the CIA because you're not supposed to talk about people who work there.
TERENCE SMITH: It involved the disclosure of her name.
ELAINE SHANNON: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And that's the crime here?
ELAINE SHANNON: It can be. The law which was passed during the Reagan administration says you have to do it with intent to disclose a covert operative. So there's a pretty high bar to prosecution but at any rate George Tenet, the CIA director, requested a leak investigation to keep his troops happy. But it created a lot of political problems for this administration.
TERENCE SMITH: Now the Justice Department has been working on it for three months. What have they accomplished?
ELAINE SHANNON: They've interviewed probably three dozen, maybe 40 people. As far as I know, no one has confessed to the leak. No reporters who received it, including a colleague of mine, have volunteered to give the FBI the information. From my sources what has happened is they've said, well, we've gone as far as we can go with voluntary interviews and also reviewing documents, phone logs, e-mails, things from the White House where it's believed the leak probably came from.
TERENCE SMITH: If that's the case, why would the attorney general recuse himself now, three months into the investigation since the Justice Department was quite firm in holding on to this investigation itself?
ELAINE SHANNON: That's a cultural thing at the Justice Department. Jim Comey said I think my integrity is quite up to this too and Chris Ray who is of the criminal division. My sense is that there's some decisions coming up here and they really want to get it off the attorney general's desk, off Comey's desk and off everybody in Washington.
They're going to have to decide if they want to close this investigation down without identifying a suspect. They're going to have to decide, well, let's say they have a cheery of who done it but they can't prove it yet so they need to immunize people. That's something that's going to be controversial. The most controversial of all of course would be whether to subpoena reporters before a grand jury.
TERENCE SMITH: Has that decision been taken?
ELAINE SHANNON: That's the one they want Pat Fitzgerald to make. They don't want it in the Justice Department. It's a lose-lose for the attorney general or Jim Comey or anybody else they would delegate.
TERENCE SMITH: How so?
ELAINE SHANNON: Well, reporters don't like to be subpoena. You raise all these issues. The person who did it would be accused of being like John Mitchell. On the other hand since among those who have been talked about as possibly con condoning the leak or doing it himself is Karl Rove, an intimate of President Bush and also who worked in Attorney General Ashcroft's campaigns so if you don't want to find the facts then you shut down the investigation or you shut it down and don't use all the tools you can which is the subpoena of reporters so they'd rather have Pat Fitzgerald do that.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell us about Patrick Fitzgerald and tell us whether he will be in your view genuinely independent in doing this.
ELAINE SHANNON: I think he will. He's a real pro. He's well respected among federal prosecutors. He's 41 years old. He was Phi Beta at Amherst, Harvard Law and went straight into prosecution I believe spent years in the elite southern district of New York and Manhattan, prosecuted every well known terrorist case you've ever heard of. Ramzi Yusef the blind Sheikh -- East Africa bombing trial -- knows a lot about al-Qaida.
In fact, it's something of a distraction to get involved in the leak investigation. He was made U.S. attorney in Chicago, a big office, very professional. He has all the clearances necessary to do this with dispatch.
TERENCE SMITH: Now does he have broad authority to pursue this including, as you said, subpoenaing reporters or lawyers or immunizing people?
ELAINE SHANNON: Yes, exactly. Sometime after Watergate, the attorney general's office made a rule that if a reporter is to be subpoenaed or a lawyer-- because these are so controversial and because privileges are involved-- that the attorney general himself or his designee, the deputy, must decide if that subpoena goes forward and also decisions on immunities and on certain kinds of appeals, certain other things. They've delegated all of this to Mr. Fitzgerald. He will make these tough decisions.
TERENCE SMITH: Is he the sort of person who would be very happy if he was being assigned to this just to shut it down as you were speculating before?
ELAINE SHANNON: That again is a tough decision. It's a very tough decision to shut down an investigation when you don't know the truth or you don't have all of the facts.
Maybe they have a good theory but something that they don't want to bring to court or it doesn't reach the level of evidence required for that law, the names of agents bill which is a tough law.
He's a pro and so, yeah, I think he's tough enough to make that decision. He's made plenty of tough decisions.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Elaine Shannon, thanks so much.
ELAINE SHANNON: Thank you.