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Leakgate: Pressure on Ashcroft to Recuse Himself Grows

Some senior law enforcement officials believe the conflict of interest is too obvious to be ignored.
 
 
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Several senior federal law enforcement officials in recent days have spoken privately among themselves of what they believe to be an increasing necessity by Attorney General John Ashcroft to formally recuse himself from any further role in the probe as to who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. Their concerns have intensified as investigators have begun to interview a number of personal friends and political associates of Ashcroft.

That belief among the senior law enforcement officials has only intensified in recent days since as many as a half-dozen White House officials have been asked by federal investigators about contacts they had with the Republican National Committee and conservative political activists. Investigators apparently are looking at whether the contacts were aimed at discrediting Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Ashcroft’s own deputy chief of staff and a recently departed director of public affairs for the Justice Department have held senior positions at the Republican National Committee. Several investigators question whether Ashcroft should continue to oversee the investigation, as more individuals close to Attorney General and his staff are drawn into the probe, according to federal law enforcement officials. A smaller number of investigators also privately support Ashcroft naming a special counsel to take over the probe entirely.

The White House and the RNC have worked closely together to stymie the political fallout from the Plame affair, according to administration and Republican party officials. At least a half dozen White House officials have been asked about their contacts with the RNC, according to two Bush administration officials. The same officials also say they do not believe that investigators are probing the efforts by the White House and the RNC as criminal misconduct, but rather as a means of determining who leaked Plame’s identity as a CIA officer last July to conservative columnist Robert D. Novak.

Mark Carollo, the director of communications for the Justice Department, said in an interview that although the question of whether Ashcroft might at some point recuse himself or appoint a special counsel is still an open one, nobody directly involved in the probe has yet told Ashcroft that he should remove himself.

“The investigation is being run by career veterans of the criminal division,” said Carollo. “No-one who has access to the Attorney General had made any such recommendation to him that he recuse himself.”

“There are a lot of people in this town and some in the department who have made themselves heard that there should be a special counsel,” Carollo added, “but they are individuals without access to the facts . . . . They are not people directly involved in the investigation itself.”

The Plame investigation is currently supervised by John Dion, a 30-year veteran federal prosecutor, who heads the Justice Department’s counterespionage section. He has twice won the John Marshall award for Outstanding Achievement, during both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Dion regularly briefs the Attorney General,” a senior Justice Department official, who is sympathetic to Ashcroft, said in an interview, “and Dion has never once suggested that the Attorney General recuse himself.” Dion himself was unavailable for comment.

Carollo confirmed Dion regularly meets with Ashcroft for "status updates" regarding the leak investigation: "The attorney general wants this to be investigated thoroughly and promptly, and to that end, he wants to be informed of the progress of investigators,” explained Carollo.

But another senior federal law enforcement official said that simply the fact that Ashcroft receives briefings about a criminal investigation in which the stakes are so high for the Attorneys General’s personal friends, political allies, and political party “is a reason in and of itself that has caused for some of us a state of disquiet . . . . Attorneys General and U.S. Attorneys have in the past traditionally recused for far less than this. The evolving standard has become that even an appearance of a conflict of interest will cause the public not to trust the [legal] process.”

The senior Justice Department official close to Ashcroft also said he believed that some of the criticism of Ashcroft’s refusal to recuse himself from the Plame investigation comes from the FBI: “We know there is a certain perception at FBI headquarters about us,” said this official, “but those people are not actively involved in the investigation. They are not familiar with the day-to-day goings on. Those who do know are a relatively small group within the Bureau and the Department. If someone involved expressed these concerns directly to us, we might have a different attitude.”

In response, Susan Whitson, a spokesperson for the FBI said: “Because this is an ongoing investigation, the FBI would not be at liberty to comment.”

A number of Ashcroft’s top aides at the Justice Department have either worked for, or currently have close ties to, the Republican National Committee. Foremost among them is David Israelite, who serves as the Deputy Chief of Staff to the Attorney General. Just prior to that appointment, Israelite had served as the Political Director of the Republican National Committee.

In December 2001, Ashcroft appointed Barbara Comstock, a former RNC official, as the Justice Department’s Director of Public Affairs. This September, Comstock left the Justice Department to join the lobbying firm of Blank Rome Government Relations L.L.C. But Comstock had her position at the time of the Plame leak, and is closely linked to several individuals questioned so far by the FBI.

Mark Carollo, who replaced Comstock, also came to his position after a stint with the RNC. Carollo, after a long career on Capitol Hill and elsewhere on behalf of Republican officeholders and causes, is widely liked and respected by the press and officeholders of both political parties.

Comstock, on the other hand, was viewed with suspicion by many career employees as someone more apt to look out for the personal interests of the Attorney General and political interests of the Republican party during her tenure, three Department officials said in interviews.

While at the RNC, Comstock was in charge of the Republican party’s “opposition research.” Prior to that, she was investigative counsel of the House Committee on Government Reform, then chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). Burton broke precedent with his predecessors who focused on the workings of government agencies, to instead focus almost exclusively on investigations of then President Clinton. (In one widely publicized episode, Burton invited reporters to the backyard of his home to witness him firing a pistol into a watermelon, in order to dramatize his theory that Clinton aide Vince Foster must have been murdered instead of committing suicide.)

Making the issue even more contentious is that Israelite is one of a small number of top deputies to whom Ashcroft relies heavily to run the Justice Department -- to such an extent that many career employees believe Ashcroft has isolated himself from dissenting viewpoints within the law enforcement community.

A recent profile of Ashcroft in Legal Times concluded: “Unlike other attorneys general who held daily or weekly meetings with the heads of DOJ units and agencies, Ashcroft only rarely sits down face to face with members of the department’s senior management. Instead, most matters coming to his attention are filtered through longtime Chief of Staff David Ayres and Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite -- known in Main Justice as “the Davids” . . . . [A]ccess to the attorney general is tightly controlled by political advisers who at time seem to run the department more like the office of a legislator seeking re-election than an executive branch agency.”

The senior Justice Department official who is close to Ashcroft said he believes such criticism is unwarranted in that Ashcroft has moved toward a “centralization of authority” and a “more disciplined running of the Department,” which he says sharply contrasts with the “more freewheeling style” of Ashcroft’s immediate predecessor, Janet Reno.

Previously, Democrats in Congress have called on Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Plame matter, emphasizing his political ties to individuals likely to be questioned during the leak investigation. Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political advisor, had advised Ashcroft during the course of three political campaigns, Ashcroft paying Rove’s consulting firm more than $746,000 for direct mail services. In addition, Jack Oliver, the deputy finance chair of President Bush’s current re-election campaign, served as an advisor to Ashcroft during a 1994 U.S. Senate campaign, and later served as Ashcroft’s deputy chief of staff.

During a Senate confirmation hearing last week for James Comey, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to be deputy attorney general, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Comey: “How could there not be an appearance of a conflict given the close nexus of relationships?”

“I agree with you that it’s an extremely important matter,” Comey said.

Murray Waas is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C.