By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/2/2004 6:35:31 PM ET 2004-01-02T23:35:31

There is a new twist in the investigation of who leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to newspaper columnist Robert Novak. NBC News has learned that the FBI is now asking some administration officials to let Novak and other reporters name names. But will reporters do that?

With investigators now zeroing in on the White House staff, trying to find out who leaked the fact that former ambassador Joe Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA operative, the FBI is now turning up the heat.

Investigators are now asking administration officials to sign a form, obtained by NBC News, releasing reporters from any promises of confidentiality they may have made to their sources.

Those signing it are asked to request that no member of the media assert any privilege or refuse to answer any questions about the leak investigation.

Legal experts say the signed forms would apparently then be used to push reporters -- possibly using subpoenas -- into disclosing who the leaker was. Law enforcement officials say this tactic has been used in past leak investigations, but they could not cite any examples. A lawyer who often represents reporters says it's unheard of.

Video: Ashcroft steps aside in CIA probe "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," says news media lawyer Floyd Abrams.

And, say many experts, it's probably legally groundless because the courts almost always consider the reporter-source privilege to belong to the journalist, not the source.

And, says an advocate for reporters, sources must be confident that promises won't be broken.

"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," says Lucy Daglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Attorney General John Ashcroft this week took himself off the case, and the U.S. Attorney from Chicago was brought in as special counsel. Some legal insiders believe Ashcroft wanted to avoid having to be the one to subpoena reporters. But Justice officials said Friday that's not why the Attorney General stepped aside. And they say the FBI cannot do a thorough job without investigating reporters involved in getting the leak.

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