(CNSNews.com) - The latest controversy rocking Washington involves questions about whether the White House broke the law by leaking the name of a CIA agent to the press. That agent -- a woman -- happens to be married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Bush administration's war on Iraq.
White House officials say they do not know who in the Bush administration -- if anyone -- leaked the name of Wilson's wife to the press.
The CIA has asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak, and on Tuesday, the Justice Department said it had launched a full-scale investigation -- the first one involving the Bush White Hosue. White House officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, have said they will fully cooperate.
But that's not enough for critics of the Bush administration. A number of Democrats now are calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Even the suggestion that a transgression merits an independent investigation can be politically damaging. Press reports say the White House has rejected calls for the appointment of an independent counsel.
Former Ambassador Wilson, in an appearance on Fox News Tuesday morning, said the flap began on July 14, when syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote an article mentioning that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative working in the weapons of mass destruction field. (See Novak's commentary: Mission to Niger, July 14, 2003.)
Novak wrote that two senior administration officials told him that it was Wilson's wife -- a CIA operative -- who suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate whether Iraq tried to buy uranium from that country, as an Italian report claimed.
After his trip to Niger in February 2002, Wilson concluded it was unlikely that Iraq ever tried to buy uranium from Niger. Yet in his State of the Union Address in January 2003, Bush mentioned reports saying that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Africa.
Here are Bush's 16 words: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Critics later accused President Bush including misleading information in his State of the Union address, and Wilson accused the Bush administration of manipulating his findings on the Iraq-Niger uranium connection.
On Fox News Tuesday morning, Wilson said in the week after the Novak article was published, "I received a number of calls from reporters citing White House sources as saying that they were pushing the story...that the real issue was not the 16 words in the State of the Union [speech]...the real issue was Wilson and his wife.
"I also got one report that fingered Karl Rove as one who was condoning, and in fact continuing to talk about this rather than stop the talk about a CIA operative," Wilson said.
Wilson previously named Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, as the possible source of the leak, although he has now backed away from that. In a recent ABC TV interview, Rove said, "I don't have any knowledge that Karl Rove himself was either the leaker or the authorizer of the leak." But he does say that Rove at the very least condoned the leak.
Wilson said all the talk about his wife ended when he went on various network news shows "and mentioned that there was in fact a federal statute that made it a crime to leak the name of a CIA operative."
For his part, columnist Robert Novak insists that no one in the Bush administration called him to leak anything about Wilson's wife.
In a statement posted on the Drudge Report on Tuesday, Novak said, "In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador Wilson's report when he told me the trip [to Niger] was inspired by [Wilson's] wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction.
"Another senior official told me the same thing. As a professional journalist with 46 years experience in Washington I do not reveal confidential sources. When I called the CIA in July to confirm Mrs. Wilson's involvement in the mission for her husband -- he is a former Clinton administration official -- they asked me not to use her name, but never indicated it would endanger her or anybody else.
Novak did name the woman, and that leads us to the current flap -- suggestions that the White House is trying to punish its critics -- in this case, Wilson -- by blowing his wife's cover.
In Tuesday's Fox interview, Wilson refused to clarify whether his wife is a CIA analyst or a covert agent involved in undercover operations.
"Well, I have refused consistently to answer questions about my wife, but I think that you can assume that if the CIA referred the matter to the Justice Department, then there is at least a belief that a federal statute may have been broken."
Novak says a CIA source told him that Wilson's wife was an analyst -- not involved in any covert activities.
"There's been nothing, absolutely nothing, brought to our attention to suggest any White House involvement, and that includes the vice president's office, as well," said Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, on Monday.
McClellan told reporters, "If anyone in this administration was involved in it [the leak], they would no longer be in this administration."
On Tuesday, Wilson -- asked if he trusted the Justice Department to investigate the administration's possible role in naming his wife -- said it's not a question he can answer. "At the end of the day, this is a matter that involves the Justice Department and whoever the leaker was."
Wilson said it's a good question to ask the Executive Branch -- "Whether they fear that there might be a conflict of interest in having this investigation done from within the Justice Department, given John Ashcroft's close relationship with Karl Rove, for example."
In response to a question from a Fox News anchor, Wilson admitted he has contributed money to the campaigns of several Democrats who are running for president, including $2,000 to the campaign of Sen. John Kerry.