Attorney General John Ashcroft is unlikely to appoint a special counsel to investigate the charge that a Bush administration official leaked the name of a secret CIA employee to reporters, according to Fox News on Wednesday. Only two circumstances might prompt the attorney general to make such an appointment, the official explained: either a clear conflict of interest, for example if the current investigation were to focus on an official to whom Justice staffers reported; or if the affair were to become such a political issue that it would be “in the public interest” to hand off the probe to an outside team.

Democratic lawmakers have been calling for a special counsel to investigate the charges of a leak, saying otherwise the probe will be compromised.

“Questions will arise almost daily regarding the fairness and completeness of how this investigation is being conducted,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter to Ashcroft sent Wednesday. “Any questionable action — or inaction — carries with it a conflict-of-interest taint. The easiest way to dispel that taint is to appoint a special counsel.”

The Justice Department announced Friday it would conduct a full criminal investigation. But Schumer complained that the White House was not told to preserve relevant evidence until Monday evening, leaving four days between the opening of the investigation and the time the information was requested.

After the Independent Counsel statute expired in 1999, the Justice Department created new rules allowing the attorney general to appoint a special counsel, who would be selected from outside the U.S. government to investigate unusual cases involving high-ranking executive-branch officials or potential conflicts of interest.

The special counsel has the same powers as a U.S. attorney, including subpoena power and the ability to convene a grand jury. Any exceptions to that authority must be reported by the attorney general to Congress after the probe has concluded.

The official told Fox News that “it may be in the public interest” to appoint a special counsel and to “do it quickly,” but that appointing one would slow down the investigation considerably.

A special counsel would have to be named and given the usual background checks, he explained, which could take from several weeks to some months. Staff would then be hired, but would have to undergo background checks as well.

Scroll to Top