The CIA Agent Flap: FBI Asks for Reporters to Talk

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JASON REED/REUTERS

Permission to speak? Rove

   FBI investigators looking into the criminal leak of a CIA agent’s identity have asked Bush Administration officials including senior political adviser Karl Rove to release reporters from any confidentiality agreements regarding conversations about the agent. If signed, the single-page requests made over the last week would give investigators new ammunition for questioning reporters who have so far, according to those familiar with the case, not disclosed the names of administration officials who divulged that Valerie Plame, wife of former ambassador Joe Wilson, worked for the CIA.

      While irregular, the move is not unprecedented. Various officials were told from the start that such a request might be made. Along with the recusal this week of Attorney General John Ashcroft, this suggests that investigators are ready to enter the next stage of the probe. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been named special prosecutor to oversee the inquiry. The FBI has already extensively re-interviewed some White House officials using emails and phone logs from their search to press for the identity of the leaker. “They are taking this very seriously,” says one close to the case.

      Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, says asking people who are in the universe of possible suspects to sign such a document is unusual, though not unheard of. "From the prosecutors' point of view, it is likely a precursor to subpoenaing journalists to testify before a grand jury, and then asking a judge to hold them in contempt if they refuse to do so," she noted.

It's plain that White House officials are under some pressure to sign the documents. "They can't refuse," said one individual who's familiar with the case. "The worst thing to be accused of here is not cooperating with the investigation." But reporters are not likely to feel the same pressure. Journalists rarely divulge the identities of confidential sources even when threatened with contempt citations so the releases may make little difference. Still, in a post-9/11 world, a case involving the disclosure of a covert agent's identity could be taken very seriously by a judge, who would have the power to jail a member of the press for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury.

For an administration that at times holds a very dim view of the press, the reputation of the Bush White House and the future of some of its officials may hang on the profession’s ethical standards.