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Secret CIA Agent Not Named By Karl Rove, W. House Says

By Eric Lichtblau and Richard W. Stevenson

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

The White House on Monday dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that Karl Rove, senior adviser to President Bush, had illegally disclosed the identity of an undercover CIA officer, as the FBI opened an investigation into the case.

At the same time, the White House rejected growing calls from Democrats for the appointment of a special outside counsel to determine whether someone in the administration had disclosed the officer’s identity in an effort at punishment for criticism of its Iraqi intelligence by the officer’s husband.

Asked if there was a need for an independent counsel, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said, “At this point, I think the Department of Justice would be the appropriate one to look into a matter like this.”

Pressed on whether there would be a potential conflict of interest for Attorney General John Ashcroft to oversee an investigation that could have immense political implications for Bush, McClellan said that there were “a lot of career professionals” at the Justice Department and that “they’re the ones that, if something like this happened, should look into it.”

The growing furor underscored the Bush administration’s continued political vulnerability on the issue of whether it exaggerated the threat from Iraq before the war. The developments also raised questions about the relationship between the White House and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence.

It was the CIA’s general counsel who asked the Justice Department to open an inquiry into the July newspaper column, by the syndicated writer Robert Novak, that named an undercover CIA agent.

The firestorm over the leak comes at a time when even some Republicans in Congress are beginning to cast a more skeptical eye on the administration’s use of intelligence to make its case against Iraq. In an interim assessment made public over the weekend, the senior Republican and senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said there were “too many uncertainties” in the intelligence underlying the National Intelligence Estimate used by the administration to justify the war.

The White House sought on Monday to head off the calls for a special counsel as numerous Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates said they doubted that the Justice Department could investigate without at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

One Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, said the situation was reason enough to revive the independent counsel law, which Congress allowed to die in 1999 after widespread concern over Kenneth W. Starr’s Whitewater investigation.