WASHINGTON — The FBI is focusing on the White House as the probable source of the unauthorized disclosure of the identity an undercover CIA officer and has asked staffers to sign a form releasing reporters from any promises of confidentiality they may have made to their sources, NBC News has learned.
Legal experts said that while the signed forms would almost certainly have no legal standing, they could be used to push journalists, possibly under threat of subpoena, to disclose who was responsible for revealing the covert status of former CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, has accused the White House of compromising his wife’s job and safety in retaliation for his publicly disputing President Bush’s claims that Iraq had tried to acquire nuclear weapons material in Africa.
The claims, which Wilson investigated in Niger on a mission for the CIA, were part of Bush’s case for war. The White House later said the evidence was unsubstantiated.
Justice Department officials told NBC News that the FBI could not conduct a thorough inquiry without being able to investigate the reporters involved in the leak, but legal experts said the request appeared to be unprecedented.
“I've never heard of the government ever going to government employees and essentially demanding that they sign away whatever confidential arrangement with someone in the press,” Floyd Abrams, a noted expert on First Amendment law, said in an interview Friday.
Although law enforcement officials said asking the staffers to sign the form was a tactic that had been used in previous investigations of unauthorized leaks, they were unable to cite any examples when pressed by NBC News.
Other experts said the form would most likely have no standing in court because judges have found that the reporter-source privilege belongs to the journalist and is not the source’s to renounce.
Nor would any reputable journalist be likely to comply anyway, they said.
“If a journalist is viewed by the public or their sources as knuckling under to pressure from the government, then they’re not going to be viewed as being an independent journalist for very long,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in an interview.
Focus back on White House
Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation last week, raising speculation that the Justice Department might be a focus of the probe. Friday’s development indicated that the investigation remained zeroed in the White House, however.
The investigation is being led by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who was appointed as special counsel when Ashcroft stepped aside. Fitzgerald will have independent authority to direct the investigation without seeking approval from the top officials of the Justice Department.
Fitzgerald, 41, was chief of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime-Terrorism Unit before he was confirmed as U.S. attorney in Chicago in October 2001.
The White House has ruled out any role by three top administration officials in the leak: political adviser Karl Rove; Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; and National Security Council official Eliot Abrams.
So far, no grand jury subpoenas have been issued, officials said this week.
NBC’s Pete Williams and MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson contributed to this report.