Probing the White House

The emerging story of what appears to be an official leak of a CIA officer's identity to the media has all the earmarks of the first big scandal for the Bush administration. At the very least, it's a political test for the president and his team.

To his credit, President Bush vowed he would fire anyone in his administration who may have leaked the name of a woman who works in the CIA's directorate gathering intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

But a dismissal would be the least of the possible punishments. If anyone in the White House did reveal her name, it would be a crime, with a possible 10 years in jail.

The motive for such a leak to journalists might have been to somehow damage the CIA official's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. He had embarrassed the Bush administration before the Iraq war by disputing its claim that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium in Africa. The CIA had sent him to Niger in February 2002, to check on reports that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material from there.

But the story at this juncture raises many more questions than answers; that's why there's a need to get the bottom of the matter as quickly as possible, and to do so without any appearance of a conflict of interest.

The Justice Department announced Tuesday that it was opening an investigation into the matter, and Attorney General John Ashcroft has the option to appoint a special counsel to handle that case.

That latter step may not be enough. While Justice has many career prosecutors who could handle this case well, public suspicions about potential White House influence over the department must be addressed. Congress should consider quickly whether to pass a new law setting up - again - an independent special prosecutor, much like the one during the Clinton years. That's the best way to reduce the political storm over this story.

By the way, journalists are free to reveal CIA identities, but they cross an ethical boundary when such information has the potential to endanger the life of a covert operative.

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