Federal investigators questioned President Bush for more than an hour Thursday as the investigation into the leak of a CIA operative’s name reached into the Oval Office.
The president was interviewed for 70 minutes by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the head of the Justice Department investigation, and by members of his team. The only other person in the room was Jim Sharp, a private trial lawyer and former federal prosecutor hired by Bush, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
“The leaking of classified information is a very serious matter,” McClellan said, adding that the president repeatedly has said he wants his administration to cooperate with the investigation. “No one wants to get to the bottom of this matter more than the president of the United States,” the spokesman said.
Investigators want to know who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative, to syndicated columnist Robert Novak last July. Disclosure of an undercover officer’s identity can be a federal crime.
Fitzgerald declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the Bush interview, but legal experts following the case said it could indicate the probe was nearing an end.
Embarrassment for Bush
The investigation has been an embarrassment for a president who promised to bring integrity and leadership to the White House after years of Republican criticism of the Clinton administration.
Four months before the election, the leak controversy has added to Bush’s Iraq-related problems. His meeting with the lead investigator came a day before he was to leave on five-day trip to Ireland and Turkey where he was to work to persuade NATO allies to help in Iraq.
Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who is married to Plame, has said he believes his wife’s identity was disclosed to undermine his credibility. Wilson denounced the Bush administration for claiming that Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had tried to obtain uranium from the African nation of Niger. Wilson went to Niger for the CIA to investigate and he found the allegation, which Bush mentioned in a State of the Union address, to be highly unlikely.
Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials, including White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, also have been questioned in the investigation. A number of news organizations have received federal subpoenas for questioning as well.
Asked if Bush had answered every question, McClellan said, “The president was glad to do his part to cooperate with the investigation. The president was pleased to share whatever information he had with the officials in charge and answer their questions.”
McClellan, who said he was not in the meeting, was asked if Bush had any information about who leaked Plame’s name. “That’s just getting into questions that are best directed to the officials in charge of the investigation,” he said. “I would not read anything into that one way or the other.”
Wilson suggested in a recent book that the leaker was Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff. The White House denies the claim and accuses Wilson of seeking to bolster the campaign of Democrat John Kerry, for whom he has acted as a foreign policy adviser.
Investigation could end soon
Lawyers say they think prosecutors are probably close to wrapping up the investigation because they have interviewed news reporters. Justice Department criminal guidelines require that all available avenues be exhausted before prosecutors subpoena or interview reporters.
Chris Caldwell, a former Justice Department prosecutor now in private practice in Los Angeles, said few leak investigations ever result in criminal charges. But in highly sensitive cases such as this one, he said, prosecutors want to be sure they have run every possible lead to ground.
“The likelihood of actually finding the source of the leak is very small,” Caldwell said.
Fitzgerald was appointed to lead the investigation after Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped aside because of his political ties to the White House. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who had pressed for Ashcroft’s recusal, said, “Today’s news is yet another indication that the special counsel is leaving no stone unturned in trying to find out who compromised national security for political purposes.”