The 12 lawyers who find themselves heading up the first major criminal probe of the Bush White House have been at the center of political firestorms before. They helped send spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen to prison. And they worked the sensitive investigation of Chinese-American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. John Dion, the career prosecutor who decided to pursue the full-blown White House probe, is a 30-year Justice Department veteran who has twice received one of the department’s top awards. Will he on this one?

The Justice Department’s counterespionage section opens 25 to 30 investigations every year into media leaks of classified information, but most never result in criminal charges. In fact, in most cases, the leaker is never identified.

In June 2000, then-Attorney General Janet Reno told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that FBI agents have conducted hundreds of interviews focusing on the people who have access to leaked classified information. That typically turns out to be a very large pool of people, she said.

“Because of the enormous difficulty of conducting leak investigations, almost all leak investigations are closed without our having identified a suspect,” Reno told lawmakers.

Nothing much has changed.

A senior Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified, described the current number of criminal charges as being “very small.”

Officials could not provide a specific number or cite a recent case where the criminal charges had been filed because of a classified leak.

Meanwhile, Democratic critics on Capitol Hill continued to call for an independent special counsel to be appointed. They charge that the close relationship between Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush prevents the Justice Department from conducting a tough and impartial probe.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on Wednesday questioned why the White House waited until Tuesday morning to issue a memo instructing staff to preserve all relevant documents, even though they were informed of the criminal probe Monday night.

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