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Ashcroft access to leak probe criticized


WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft is being regularly briefed on the CIA leak investigation, receiving details such as witness names, a top Justice Department official revealed yesterday under persistent questioning from Senate Democrats.

Seizing on the information provided by Assistant Attorney General Chris Wray, Sen. Charles E. Schumer renewed his call for Ashcroft to recuse himself from a politically sensitive probe that could reach into the Bush White House.

"The fact that the attorney general, who is a close associate of the president in many ways, knows the details and knows some of the people who have been called [as witnesses] and the general thrust of what's been asked, I find troubling," the New York Democrat said after quizzing Wray during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

"I would urge that the attorney general recuse himself."

Wray, who heads the Justice Department's Criminal Division, strongly defended the investigation's integrity and said the attorney general continues to "keep all options open" regarding calls for his recusal or appointing a special prosecutor.

The probe into who leaked the name of CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak and several reporters is in the hands of a career prosecutor who has been involved in the top espionage cases of recent decades.

Though Schumer and other Democrats praised that prosecutor, John Dion, they are questioning whether political appointees are involved in the high-stakes investigation.

Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson, contends senior Bush administration officials blew her cover in retaliation for his high-profile criticism of the White House's justification for war against Iraq.

"Does Mr. Dion have the power to take whatever investigative steps he deems appropriate?" Schumer asked. "Or can he be blocked from subpoenaing documents, putting a witness in the grand jury or doing anything else he believes is essential to finding out who committed this dastardly crime?"

Asked whether Ashcroft is told about witness cooperation, promising leads and the general thrust of the investigation, Wray said he provides the attorney general "sufficient detail for him to understand meaningfully what's going on in the investigation."

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