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Retired diplomat Joseph Wilson is at the center of Washington's latest political firestorm.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

The allegation that White House officials leaked the identity of a CIA officer to reporters in order to retaliate against her husband, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson, an outspoken critic of Bush administration Iraq policy, has triggered a furor and an investigation by the Justice Department. Here’s a guide to the story so far.

What exactly happened and when?

Early last year, the White House, State Department and Pentagon asked the CIA to assess reports of Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium from the African country of Niger for possible use in making nuclear weapons.

The CIA called in retired diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had served both in Niger and Iraq during his career, which ended in 1998.

Wilson reported that he could not find evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime had attempted to buy uranium from Niger.

What was Wilson’s role in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq?

In 2002 and 2003, Wilson became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy in frequent appearances on cable TV news programs.

In the Feb. 13, 2003, edition of the left-leaning Nation magazine, Wilson wrote that a war against Saddam Hussein “will spawn more terrorism, not less.”

An Iraq invasion would not be motivated by the liberation of an oppressed people, he contended. Instead, he said, “The underlying objective of this war is the imposition of a Pax Americana on the region and installation of vassal regimes that will control restive populations.”

He also argued that Bush was interested only in “conquest, occupation and imposition of handpicked leaders on a vanquished population.”

Why had the CIA chosen Wilson — who turned out to be so vehemently opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy — for the Niger mission?

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That has not yet been explained, but in hindsight Wilson does seem an odd choice. President Bush’s spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Monday “we weren’t aware of his trip (to Niger) before we saw it in the media reports.”

How did Wilson’s wife become entangled in the controversy?

In a July 14 column, syndicated columnist Robert Novak reported that Wilson’s wife “is an (Central Intelligence) Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger” to investigate the reports of Iraqi attempts to buy uranium. Novak added, “The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.”

What did Bush’s spokesman say in July when reporters asked him about the Novak column?

Revealing the identity of a CIA employee to a reporter “is not the way this president or this White House operates,” Bush spokesman McClellan said at a July 22 briefing. “There is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth” to that suggestion that Bush aides revealed the woman’s identity. “No one in this White House would have given authority to take such a step,” he said.

Why is the issue heating up now if the column appeared in July?

Last weekend, MSNBC.com and the Washington Post reported that CIA chief George Tenet had asked the Justice Department to investigate an allegation that Bush administration officials leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer — apparently Wilson’s wife.

The Post story said “a senior administration official” had told the newspaper that before Novak’s July 14 column ran, “two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of Wilson’s wife.”

What role, if any, did Bush political strategist Karl Rove have in this episode?

Wilson has said Rove was the culprit who did the leaking. Later, Wilson retreated a bit saying only that he thought Rove condoned the leaking.

Wilson said in August that he wanted to see Rove “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” But White House spokesman McClellan says Rove is not involved in the affair.

What are Wilson’s ties to the Democrats?

Wilson has given campaign contributions to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and to that of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. He has also donated money to one of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Senate campaigns and to HILLPAC, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s political action fund.

But he also chipped in money to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and to the campaigns of Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.

Wilson served as a congressional fellow in Gore’s office in the 1980s when Gore served in the Senate. Wilson also served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

What, if any, crime may have been committed in identifying Wilson’s wife as a CIA officer?

A 1982 law makes it illegal for any person with “authorized access to classified information that identifies a covert agent” to intentionally disclose any information identifying that agent to anyone who is not authorized to get such information.

The law seems to set a high bar for conviction — it requires that person leaking the identity of the agent must know that “the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such agent’s intelligence relationship to the United States.”

Who is investigating this episode?

John Dion, a 30-year career prosecutor who has headed the counterespionage section at the Justice Department since 2002, is in charge of the probe. FBI agents from the counterintelligence and inspections division, and from the Washington field office, are doing interviews and gathering evidence.

What do Democrats say about all this?

Democrats say the identification of Wilson’s wife was retribution for his disagreement with the Bush administration on Iraq policy.

“We have seen arrogance from this administration before, but now we see intimidation,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Thursday. “They are sending the signal that nothing is off limits in politics.”

Led by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., several Senate Democrats have called for the appointment of special counsel to look into the alleged leak. They say only someone outside the Justice Department would have the independence to do a thorough investigation.

Schumer said Thursday that any investigation should look for “potential obstruction of justice and potential destruction of evidence.”

The New York Democrat has gone further, calling on Attorney General John Ashcroft to recuse himself from any involvement, because he is political ally of the president and because Karl Rove once did consulting work for Ashcroft’s campaigns when he ran for governor of Missouri.

Schumer also said that the next two officials in line in the Justice Department, Acting Deputy Attorney General Robert McCallum and Solicitor General Ted Olsen should recuse themselves. McCallum is suspect, Schumer said, because he was a member of the semi-secret Skull and Bones society at Yale at the same time Bush was in 1968.

And Olsen, Schumer said, must step aside because he represented Bush in his appeal of the 2000 election dispute to the Supreme Court.

If all three were to recuse themselves, then Christopher Wray, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the criminal division, would likely be the one to make the decision about whether to appoint a special counsel.

How do the Democrats respond to the charge that they’re seeking to exploit this episode for political advantage?

“People say it’s political. That’s absurd,” said Schumer on Thursday. “If somebody murders somebody, if somebody commits a crime and somebody else gets up and says a crime was committed, the answer is not ‘you’re doing that for political reasons.’ Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. A crime has been committed, a serious crime.”

Can Democrats pressure Ashcroft to appoint a special prosecutor?

This week, Senate Democrats sought to attach a measure urging the appointment of a special counsel to a bill providing funds to the District of Columbia, but the measure was ruled irrelevant to the bill. Schumer said Thursday he’d try to attach his special counsel measure to the pending $67 billion Iraq military and reconstruction bill.

But he acknowledged, “the bottom line is: this is an executive decision. We can’t force the executive branch to do the right thing.”

What do Republicans say?

Appointment of an outside counsel would be premature, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to let the Department of Justice do its job. These are career attorneys and no politician is going to make them deny basic facts.”

“These are professionals and we have no reason to believe they are not going to do their job,” said another Judiciary Committee Republican, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.

If Ashcroft appeared to be obstructing an investigation, then “that would be an opportunity to have a hearing” of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said.

But he said it was “patently obvious” that Democrats are trying to embarrass the Bush administration by calling for a special counsel.

Why won’t reporters say who leaked the identity of Wilson’s wife?

Frequently the only way a reporter can get scoops from well-placed people in the executive branch or Congress is to agree that the information not be traced back to them. The reporter would lose his sources if he identified them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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