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US launches probe into leaking of CIA agent's name

THE US Justice Department has begun a full-scale criminal investigation into allegations that White House aides unmasked a CIA agent in an act of revenge against her husband, a prominent critic of the case for war with Iraq.

President George Bush yesterday ordered his staff to co-operate fully with the investigation, while the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzalez, told colleagues to preserve any records or documents that might be relevant to the inquiry.

White House aides said Mr Bush welcomed the investigation, initiated at the request of the CIA director, George Tenet, and vowed that the alleged leak would be "pursued to the fullest extent".

The same aides insisted, however, that there was "absolutely nothing" to suggest that anyone in the service of Mr Bush, or the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, was responsible for leaking the name of Valerie Plame to senior Washington journalists, notably the veteran conservative columnist Robert Novak.

Leaking the name of a CIA operative is a criminal offence punishable by up to 10 years' inprisonment.

Miss Plame's husband, the former US ambassador Joseph Wilson, has accused the White House of orchestrating the leaks to punish him for going public with his concerns about the intelligence case for toppling Saddam Hussein.

Mr Wilson, a veteran Africa hand who also served as acting ambassador to Baghdad during the first Gulf war, had revealed that he was sent to Africa by the CIA last year to check the now discredited claim that Saddam sought uranium from Niger.

Mr Wilson accused the White House of ignoring his formal conclusion that the claim was false in order to preserve the "Africa connection" as a justification for war. The White House included the claim in the State of the Union address in January, but was later forced to concede that it was based on false information.

In July, at the height of fevered inter-agency squabbling over who was to blame for faulty intelligence on Iraq, Mr Novak said he was told by two senior administration officials that Mr Wilson's Niger mission was "inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction".

Mr Novak said on Monday that his own CIA sources played down the national security implications of the leak, telling him that Mr Wilson's wife was merely an analyst, and not a covert operator working in the field. However, other sources have told Washington reporters that Miss Plame worked for the clandestine service of the CIA, though she was now out of the field.

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The disclosure of Miss Plame's identity is reported to have caused great anger at the CIA, amid fears that foreign contacts cultivated during her covert career are now in grave danger.

Mr Wilson has accused the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, of telling journalists that his wife was "fair game". However, as the formal criminal investigation began, Mr Wilson stepped back from directly fingering Mr Rove.

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said it was "ridiculous" to suggest that Mr Rove was behind the leak, and that he had the full confidence of Mr Bush.

The scandal took off at the weekend after an unnamed senior administration official, reportedly close to the CIA chief George Tenet, claimed that two White House officials leaked Miss Plame's identity to selected journalists in an act of "revenge" on Mr Wilson.

At least six journalists have said they were approached by administration officials with the information about Mr Wilson's wife. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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