Tuesday :: Dec 30, 2003

Ashcroft Recuses Himself From Valerie Plame Investigation

by Steve

After seeing the White House successfully mothball for months the investigation of which White House official outted CIA operative Valerie Plame, the Washington Post reported late last week that the FBI surprisingly had been accumulating interviews and evidence at an accelerated pace over the last several weeks. Then late today the Justice Department suddenly announced that after reviewing the latest evidence compiled by the FBI, Ashcroft has now decided to recuse himself from the investigation and appoint a Special Prosecutor. Plame as you may remember was a CIA operative outted by a White House official in retaliation for the work of her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson who exposed the Bush lies in the 2003 State of the Union about Iraq’s alleged uranium purchases from African countries.

Why would Ashcroft do this now, after the White House gave every appearance of successfully once again following its modus operandi of burying potentially embarrassing matters like this?

In a move cheered by Democrats, Deputy Attorney General James Comey announced that Ashcroft had stepped aside to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest after reviewing evidence recently developed in the inquiry. He would not specify the nature of that evidence.

Comey said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago, a veteran of terrorism and political corruption cases, would take over as a special prosecutor and would be given "the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation."

"He has the power and authority to make whatever prosecutive judgments he believes are appropriate without having to come back to me or anybody else at the Justice Department for approvals," Comey said.

Comey will retain ultimate authority over Fitzgerald as the acting attorney general for the case. Comey rejected choosing a complete outsider to be the special counsel.

Of course, therein lies the rub. Fitzgerald still reports to Comey, who still reports to Ashcroft. And although Democratic Senator Charles Schumer thinks this is a great move, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Howard Dean do not, and they feel that Ashcroft should have gone the full measure and appointed a Special Counsel outside of the DOJ.

They are all correct, of course. But in this Administration, that was never going to happen.

It is still interesting why Ashcroft waited until now to do this, and did so after reviewing the recent evidence that the FBI had gathered, which according to the Post last week included interviews with those inside and outside the White House with first hand knowledge of the matter. Ashcroft has direct ties to Rove from prior political work, hence the earlier demands from Democrats that Ashcroft recuse himself from a matter involving Rove and Ashcroft’s boss. The Washington Post’s story has a few clues:

Justice Department officials declined to elaborate today on what specifically prompted the change in course, and Ashcroft made no public comments.

But several outside legal experts said the decision signals that investigators may be narrowing their focus to one or more likely suspects, and that some of those individuals may have ties to Ashcroft. Officials said the recusal order applies to Ashcroft and his entire personal staff, which includes a number of longtime political aides from his days as a U.S. senator.

"It is a reasonable surmise that they may be honing in on someone who is in a position connected with the administration itself, rather than a career civil servant," said Floyd Abrams, a New York media attorney who has represented journalists in leak cases. "A political appointee, rather than a career civil servant, would be more likely to lead to consideration of a recusal."

So we now have the equivalent of a legal Elliot Ness heading up the Plame investigation. Again, given this White House's success at burying matters with a hypocritical GOP House and Senate, which only years ago called for full recusals and immediate outside investigations from the Clinton White House on even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it would be premature to make much of this.

But the timing of Aschcroft's move after reviewing what the FBI has recently dug up is interesting indeed.

Steve :: 5:52 PM :: Comments (6) :: Digg It!