WASHINGTON — President Bush said Thursday he has consulted a private attorney in case he is interviewed or forced to testify about who may have leaked the name of a covert CIA operative to the media last summer.
"I met with an attorney to determine whether or not I need his advice and if I deem I need his advice I’ll probably hire him," the president told reporters.
There was no indication that Bush is a target of the grand jury investigation, but the president added that "I want to know the truth and I’m willing to cooperate myself."
Earlier, Bush’s chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said: “The president has made it very clear He wants everyone to cooperate fully with the investigation and that would include himself.”
He confirmed that Bush had contacted Washington attorney Jim Sharp. “In the event the president needs his advice, I expect he probably would retain him,” McClellan said. There is no indication Bush has been questioned yet.
A federal grand jury has questioned numerous White House and administration officials to learn who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to the news media. Wilson has charged that officials made the disclosure in an effort to discredit him.
Democrats blast Bush
Democrats seized on the news to criticize the president.
“It speaks for itself that the president initially claimed he wanted to get to the bottom of this, but now he’s suddenly retained a lawyer,” said Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Bush shouldn’t drag the country through grand juries and legal maneuvering. President Bush should come forward with what he knows and come clean with the American people.”
Plame’s name first surfaced in July in a column written by commentator Robert Novak, who said his information came from administration sources. Disclosure of an undercover officer’s identity can be a federal crime. The grand jury has heard from witnesses and combed through thousands of pages of documents turned over by the White House, but it has returned no indictments.
The probe is being handled by Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed after Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped aside from the case because of his political ties to the White House.
Without a breakthrough from the documents or a cooperating witness, prosecutors may be forced to try to identify the leaker through Novak or other reporters. NBC News has confirmed that Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, the host of “Meet the Press,” has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury. Time magazine said reporter Matthew Cooper was also subpoenaed.
However, journalists pressed by the prosecution could assert a First Amendment privilege to protect their sources.
Grand jury casts wide net
At the request of the CIA, Wilson investigated the allegations that Iraq had tried to obtain uranium from Niger and reported that the claim was inaccurate.
After Bush repeated the allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address as one of the justifications for going to war, Wilson wrote an editorial column in The New York Times accusing the president of operating under false pretenses.
The grand jury has also issued subpoenas for records of telephone calls from Air Force One during the week before Novak published Plame’s name.
Wilson identified Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and Elliott Abrams, a Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, as the possible leakers in a book he published earlier this year. He has also accused Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, of having known about and encouraging the campaign to discredit him.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan has said that his conversations with Rove, Libby and Abrams ruled out their involvement.
NBC’s David Gregory, MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.