WASHINGTON -- President Bush has consulted a lawyer in case he is called as a witness in the grand jury investigation into who in his administration leaked the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame to a columnist last summer, the White House said yesterday.
"The president has had discussions with an outside attorney," said White House spokesman Allen Abney. "He has had discussions and, in the event that he needs advice, he would retain him."
Abney also confirmed that the attorney's name is Jim Sharp, but said he had no further information about when Bush first consulted the lawyer or whether the president has been asked to testify before the grand jury.
A message left late yesterday on the answering machine at Sharp's law firm in Washington was not immediately returned. Sharp is a former assistant US attorney for the District of Columbia, The Washington Post reported.
Bush has pledged the White House's cooperation in the investigation and said he does not know the source of the leak. If the president were to be called as a witness, it would not indicate that Bush is under suspicion of wrongdoing himself, according to lawyers familiar with the grand jury process.
Paul Rosenzweig, a former assistant in the office of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, said that people called to testify before a grand jury are almost always witnesses to an event rather than targets of the investigation.
"There is nothing wrong with a person hiring a lawyer," Rosenzweig said. "We do it all the time. It's not generally considered a sign of fault, as anyone who has consulted a lawyer about a contract knows."
The development was first reported by CBS News last night.
The grand jury investigation stems from a syndicated column written by Robert Novak last July in which he disclosed that the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson is a CIA agent. Novak attributed the information to sources in the Bush administration.
Under federal law, it is a felony to knowingly reveal the identity of a covert agent.
Wilson has accused the administration of leaking his wife's identity -- thereby ruining her career -- as retaliation for his public criticism of the president's statement that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.
In February 2002, Wilson traveled to the African nation of Niger to investigate reports that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium there in order to build a nuclear bomb. Wilson found no evidence of any attempt to buy uranium, and reported that the allegation was unfounded.
But President Bush repeated the allegation in his January 2003 State of the Union address as part of his argument that the Iraqi dictator was actively seeking weapons of mass destruction.
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," Bush declared.
After Baghdad fell, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa" in The New York Times accusing US officials of knowingly exaggerating the case for invading Iraq, revealing that he had filed a report the previous year that contradicted Bush's later assertion. The White House later acknowledged that the claim about Niger should not have been included in the speech.
Eight days later, Novak published the column that noted that Wilson's wife was a covert CIA agent.
Last October, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the leak, but Democrats complained that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft should not be given oversight of the investigators because of his ties to the White House.
That same month, Bush pledged "full disclosure" in the investigation and said that he wants "to know the truth." But he also said the identity of the person who leaked the information might never be known.
"This is a town full of people who like to leak information," Bush said to reporters after meeting with Cabinet members. "I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers."
In December, Ashcroft recused himself from further oversight of the investigation. Deputy Attorney General James Comey then appointed a career prosecutor, Chicago US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, to take over, empowering him to make all prosecutorial decisions -- such as issuing subpoenas, granting immunity to witnesses, and bringing forward charges -- without first consulting his superiors at the Justice Department.
The grand jury has been meeting behind closed doors since January. The White House has turned over thousands of pages of documents to the grand jury, and it has taken testimony from several high-level witnesses. So far, however, it has not returned an indictment.
Wilson recently published a book, "The Politics of Truth," in which he speculates that source of the leak may work in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. He has also publicly accused Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, of approving the leak if not actually committing it. He wrote that MSNBC's Chris Matthews called him in July 2003 to say that Karl Rove had told him that "Wilson's wife is fair game."
The White House has said Rove and officials in Cheney's office deny leaking information and accused Wilson of trying to help presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, whose candidacy he is supporting.
Wilson, who is a foreign policy adviser for Kerry, has acted as a surrogate for the candidate, giving speeches at rallies and telling voters about the leak of his wife's CIA work.
He did not return a call yesterday evening.
The Kerry campaign had no comment last night.
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