WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will step aside from the politically charged investigation into a leak related to the Iraq war and the Justice Department will name a special prosecutor, department officials said on Tuesday.
The officials gave few details, saying only that Ashcroft was stepping down from the investigation and it would now be headed by the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft will recuse himself from the investigation into the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name and the Justice Department will name a special prosecutor, department officials said on December 30, 2003. The officials gave few details, saying only that Ashcroft was stepping down from the investigation and it would now be headed by the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald. The Justice Department is conducting an investigation into who disclosed the identity of a CIA officer whose husband had challenged President George W. Bush's claims about Iraq's weapons threat. Ashcroft is seen in Washington in this September 30 file photo. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Further details are expected at a 2 p.m. news conference.
The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into who had disclosed the identity of a CIA officer whose husband had challenged President Bush's claims about Iraq's weapons threat.
Disclosing the identity of a clandestine intelligence officer is a federal crime as is leaking classified information to the media.
Democrats in Congress had demanded that Ashcroft, who was appointed by Bush to head the Justice Department, should step aside and name an outside counsel to run the probe.
The investigation stemmed from the disclosure in July that the wife of a former U.S. envoy in Iraq and Gabon, Joseph Wilson, was an undercover CIA officer specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
Wilson has charged that the Bush administration officials made public his wife's name in an act of revenge after he accused the White house of exaggerating the weapons threat from Iraq, Washington's main justification for going to war.
Wilson went to Niger early in 2002 at the CIA's request to assess a report that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger. Wilson found the allegation to be highly doubtful and the International Atomic Energy Agency later dismissed it as based on forged documents.
But the charge found its way into Bush's State of the Union speech in January as part of the U.S. case against Saddam Hussein. Only after Wilson went public did the White house admit Bush should not have included it, blaming the CIA.
The furor over the leak broke as Bush faced low approval ratings and growing political pressure over the continued killing and disorder in Iraq.
In addition, no weapons of mass destruction have been found by U.S. teams in Iraq since the war ended.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd