WASHINGTON - The White House staff began going back through records and telephone logs Wednesday in search of any information relevant to the criminal investigation into public disclosure of a CIA undercover officer's identity, President Bush's spokesman said.
Press secretary Scott McClellan said he had no knowledge about anyone going to the Justice Department with any information about the case, as Bush had urged. Similarly, he said he did not know of anyone hiring legal counsel.
"At this point, all the Department of Justice has asked us to do is preserve any and all information that could be related," he said. McClellan indicated the White House would consent, if asked, to polygraph tests for staff. "We will cooperate fully, at the direction of the president ... Full cooperation is full cooperation."
One day after the probe was announced, there was no sign of investigators at the White House, McClellan said.
Bush, on Tuesday, said, "I want to know who the leakers are" and he voiced confidence that career Justice Department lawyers and FBI agents can impartially conduct the investigation.
Bush said he is "absolutely confident" the investigation can be handled within his administration and reiterated that he has asked the White House staff to cooperate. The president also maintained there is no need to name an outside special counsel.
The investigation is aimed at finding who leaked the name of the CIA operative, possibly in an attempt to punish the officer's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who had accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.
While McClellan has said it's "ridiculous" to suggest that Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, leaked the name, the spokesman refused to discuss whether Rove had talked with reporters about her. Wilson claims Rove told reporters his wife was "fair game."
Brushing aside questions, McClellan said, "Now we're getting into issues such as: did anyone talk about what was in the news, what was reported in the paper, things of that nature. That can go down a whole lot of different roads. Was it known that that information was classified? I think that's an important question."
The spokesman also defended the administration's failure to take action when the operative's name showed up in a column by Robert Novak. "There was no information brought to our attention beyond an anonymous source in media reports to suggest that there was White House involvement," he said.
Faced with increasing demands by Democrats for an independent investigation, Bush said Tuesday during a fund-raising stop in Chicago: "I have told our administration, people in my administration to be fully cooperative. Leaks of classified information are a bad thing. ... I want to know who the leakers are."
That did not satisfy Democratic leaders, who argued that Attorney General John Ashcroft was too close to the White House to run an independent investigation.
"If there ever was a case for the appointment of a special counsel, this is it," said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.
Ashcroft has not ruled out the possibility of appointing a special counsel, said a senior law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he doesn't believe there has to be an outside investigation, telling NBC's "Today" show that an effort by career counterespionage lawyers and FBI agents already is under way.
The probe for now is in the hands of 11 Justice Department lawyers led by John Dion, chief of the counterespionage section of criminal division. Dion's team handles all of the roughly 50 referrals a year from the CIA and other intelligence agencies about leaks of classified information.
The Justice Department told the White House and CIA to preserve any documents that might be related to the probe, including telephone logs, e-mails, notes and other documents. "I'm sure that staffers that feel they need to are going back and making sure that those records are maintained," McClellan said.
Although Bush said he welcomed the investigation, it was an embarrassing development for a president who promised to bring integrity and leadership to the White House after years of Republican criticism and investigations of the Clinton administration.
Federal law prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of a covert agent's name, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Novak said he based his report on two senior administration officials.
News executives expressed concern that the investigation could lead to subpoenas of reporters' notes and phone records, and the journalists themselves.
"The question really comes down to whether there are other ways to do this that do less damage to the idea of the First Amendment," said Bill Felber, editor of The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, who handles freedom of information issues for the Associated Press Managing Editors. "This ought to be last resort, not a first resort."
Wilson had traveled to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations of uranium sales to Iraq. He concluded the allegations were not credible. On July 6, 2003, he wrote a commentary in The New York Times that said some intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was "twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, in two e-mails to White House staff on Tuesday, ordered the preservation of any documents relevant to the investigation, particularly any contacts with Novak and Timothy M. Phelps, Washington bureau chief for Newsday newspaper, and Knut Royce, a staff writer for the paper.