The Justice Department is investigating the leak of the identity and CIA status of the wife of former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson. This summer, Wilson publicly criticized evidence offered by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. Soon after Wilson aired his criticism, his wife's name and status as an undercover CIA operative was made public in a column by Robert Novak - a move Wilson has alleged was meant as an intimidation tactic.
Last week, NBC News reported that investigators in the case have asked Bush administration officials to sign a waiver releasing journalists from any promises of confidentiality they made to their sources. NBC News cited legal experts who said that the purpose of the forms would be to push journalists into revealing the identity of Novak's sources.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to say under repeated questioning whether White House employees would be directed to sign the waiver, instead saying that President George W. Bush expected White House staffers to "cooperate fully" with the investigation.
"The president has directed the White House to cooperate fully with the career officials who are leading this investigation. And that's exactly what he expects the White House to continue doing. We have been and we will continue to do so. I think also in the spirit of cooperating fully with the career officials who are investigating this matter, it's important that we do everything we can to preserve the integrity of the investigation and not compromise it," McClellan said.
Tuesday, however, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card calling on the White House to order its employees to sign the waivers.
"'Full cooperation' requires freeing these journalists from their obligations to protect their sources. I hope you will do so as soon as possible," Schumer wrote.
In a press statement, Schumer, who has been a strong advocate of an investigation into the leak of Wilson's wife's identity and a frequent critic of the Justice Department's efforts, noted the previous decision by the White House Counsel's office to set a deadline for complying with a Justice Department request for phone and e-mail records.
"It took long enough to get the Justice Department to do the right thing with regard to this case, we shouldn't have to keep pestering the White House to cooperate," Schumer said.
A Justice Department spokesman yesterday was unable to comment on the White House's cooperation with the waiver request or with the leak investigation overall.
While reaffirming the White House's cooperation yesterday, McClellan offered veiled criticism of Schumer's efforts.
"It would be unfortunate if people are seeking to politicize a serious matter, like leaking classified information, for partisan gain," he said.
Even if the White House compels its staff to sign the waivers, though, they may have little use in the investigation. According to Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, states that have dealt with the issue of reporters' privilege have determined that the privilege rests with the journalists and not their sources.
The waivers "will have no effect on the journalists' behavior whatsoever," she told Global Security Newswire.
Instead of being an effective investigative measure, Dalglish said that the waivers were more likely intended to get "political mileage" by shifting the blame for lack of progress in the case to a lack of cooperation by journalists.
Throughout the course of the investigation, both Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has since recused himself from the case, have publicly suggested that the media would play a role in its success or failure.
"I have no idea whether we'll find out who the leaker is, partially because, in all due respect to your profession, you do a very good job of protecting the leakers," Bush said during an October press conference.