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Bush aide in leak storm

Washington, Sept. 29 (Reuters): The White House denied today that President George W. Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, was behind a leak of secret information apparently aimed at discrediting a vocal critic of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

The White House rebuffed Democratic calls for a special counsel to be appointed to lead an investigation of the matter.

The controversy centres on the public disclosure that the wife of former US ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA operative specialising in weapons of mass destruction.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he had spoken to Rove about the allegations and was assured it was “simply not true” that Rove had anything to do with the leak. McClellan pledged the White House would cooperate with the justice department if it investigated.

But retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democratic presidential hopeful, said an independent commission needed to look into the allegations.

“This administration has played politics with national security for a long time, but this is going too far,” Clark said. But when asked about calls for a special counsel to investigate, McClellan said the justice department would “at this point” be the “appropriate one to look into a matter like this.”

A senior administration official said the justice department was conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full investigation was needed.

The official said part of the the inquiry was to determine whether the leak was a violation of law or national security, or if it caused any damage.

Wilson, a long-time state department veteran and former US ambassador to Gabon, has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration, accusing it of exaggerating the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Wilson wrote in The New York Times in July that he went to Niger in February 2002 at the request of the CIA to assess a report that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger, a charge later dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency as based on forged documents.

The Niger uranium charge found its way into Bush’s state of the union speech last January as part of the US case against Saddam, and only after Wilson went public did the White House admit Bush should not have included it.

CIA director George Tenet took responsibility for not getting the White House to drop the Niger charge from the speech, a controversy that consumed part of the summer.

Now the CIA has asked the justice department to look into whether one or more Bush administration officials leaked information to the news media exposing the secret identity of Wilson’s wife.

Wilson said he did not have any knowledge that Rove, one of Bush’s closest and most trusted advisers and the architect of his 2000 campaign victory, was the leaker or authorised the leak.

“But I have great confidence that at a minimum he (Rove) condoned it and certainly did nothing to shut it down,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America.

The fact that Wilson’s wife was an undercover CIA operative was published by a columnist, Robert Novak, shortly after Wilson’s article in The New York Times.

Under the Intelligence Identities and Protection Act, the unauthorised identification of a CIA operative is a criminal act punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. McClellan said Bush had no patience for such activities and suggested anyone involved would be fired.

“If anyone has information related to this, they need to report it to the department of justice,” he said.

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