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Justice Department Press Briefing

Aired December 30, 2003 - 14:09   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go live now to the Department of Justice and listen to that news conference we were telling you about.
JAMES COMEY, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good afternoon, folks. I'm joined behind the podium by Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray. We are here to announce a couple of procedural developments in the investigation into allegations that the identity of a CIA employee was improperly disclosed to the media last July.

The first development is that, effective today, the attorney general has recused himself and his office staff from further involvement in this matter.

By that act, I automatically become the acting attorney general for purposes of this case with authority to determine how the case is investigated and, if warranted by the evidence, prosecuted.

The attorney general, in an abundance of caution, believed that his recusal was appropriate, based on the totality of circumstances and the facts in evidence developed at this stage of the investigation. I agree with that judgment. I also agree that he made it at the appropriate time, the appropriate point in this investigation.

The second development is that prior to his recusal the attorney general and I agreed that it was appropriate to appoint a special counsel from outside our normal chain of command to oversee this investigation.

COMEY: By his recusal, of course, the attorney general left to me the decision about how to chose a counsel, who that person should be and what the person's mandate should be.

In anticipation of this development, I have given a great deal of thought to this in recent days and have decided that, effective immediately, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, will serve as special counsel in charge of this matter.

I chose Mr. Fitzgerald, my friend and former colleague, based on his sterling reputation for integrity and impartiality. He is an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor. He is a man with extensive experience in national security and intelligence matters, extensive experience conducting sensitive investigations and in particular experience in conducting investigations of alleged government misconduct.

I have today delegated to Mr. Fitzgerald all the approval authorities that will be necessary to ensure that he has the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation: that is that he has the power and authority to make whatever prosecutive judgments he believes are appropriate without having to come back to me or anybody else at the Justice Department for approvals.

COMEY: Mr. Fitzgerald alone will decide how to staff this matter, how to continue the investigation and what prosecutive decisions to make.

I expect that he will only consult with me or with Assistant Attorney General Wray should he need additional resources or support.

You should know that as I thought about this matter in recent days, I considered other alternatives.

I first considered having the matter handled by Assistant Attorney General Wray and myself acting as ultimate supervisors and decision-makers. You will not be surprised to learn that I have great confidence in my own ability to be fair and impartial. I also have complete confidence in Chris Wray's ability to be fair and impartial. For those of you who don't know him, he is a total pro and one of the people who makes this department great.

But as I said, both the attorney general and I thought it prudent -- and maybe we are being overly cautious, but we thought it prudent to have the matter handled by someone who is not in regular contact with the agencies and entities affected by this investigation.

As part of our counterterrorism responsibilities, Assistant Attorney General Wray and I work every single day with the national security intelligence community here in Washington. Mr. Fitzgerald in Chicago does not.

At a time when fighting terrorism is the department's top priority, as it should be, it is imperative that Mr. Wray and I be able to focus on that responsibility without the complication that would come from also having to make decisions about this investigation.

COMEY: Let me add that my decision to assign this matter to the United States attorney from Chicago is not a reflection on the people who have conducted this investigation to date or the way they have done it.

We have a fabulous team of FBI agents working this case, coordinating with some of our very best career lawyers. I now know in great detail the work that they have done very quickly in this investigation, and it is impressive.

I should add that Mr. Fitzgerald may well decide to keep all or some of the career team that has been working this case, but that's entirely his call. I also considered naming a special counsel from outside the government. The regulations promulgated in 1999 by Attorney General Reno say that an outside special counsel should -- and I'm going to read you the quote -- "be a lawyer with a reputation for integrity and impartial decision-making, and with appropriate experience to ensure both that the investigation will be conducted ably, expeditiously and thoroughly, and that investigative and prosecutorial decisions will be supported by an informed understanding of the criminal law and Department of Justice policies."

When I read that, I realized that it describes Pat Fitzgerald perfectly. I once told a Chicago newspaper that Pat Fitzgerald was Elliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor. Anyone who knows him, who knows his work, who knows his background, knows that he is the perfect man for this job.

The attorney general and I agree that all leak investigations must be conducted with energy and urgency. That is all the more true when the investigation centers on allegations that there has been a disclosure of national security information.

To date, this investigation has been conducted professionally and expeditiously and I believe it would not be in the public interest for anything I do to cause this investigation to be put on hold for any period of time.

My choice of Pat Fitzgerald, a sitting United States attorney, permits this investigation to move forward immediately and to avoid the delay that would come from selecting, clearing and staffing an outside special counsel operation.

COMEY: In addition, in many ways, the mandate that I am giving to Mr. Fitzgerald is significantly broader than that that would go to an outside special counsel.

In short, I have concluded that it is not in the public interest to remove this matter entirely from the Department of Justice, but that certain steps are appropriate to ensure that the matter is handled properly and that the public has confidence in the way in which it is handled.

I believe the assignment to Mr. Fitzgerald achieves both of those important objectives.

And I will be happy to take any questions you might have.

QUESTION: What happened? I mean, you guys were defending your professional staff here at the Justice Department to handle it and now all of a sudden you're appointing Mr. Fitzgerald. What happened to tip it?

COMEY: Well, I think what the Department of Justice has said to date is that all options were open; that it was being handled professionally by the career lawyers and FBI agents on the matters, and that's absolutely true. I know the details of this investigation up and down. I've been down in the weeds and looked at the work they've done. And it's exactly what you were told it was: career prosecutors working very, very hard on it.

It's just that we reached a point in the investigation where the attorney general and I thought it was appropriate to make the judgment that's been made.

QUESTION: What tipped it? Why did you decide now to send it to Fitzgerald if everything was going so well?

COMEY: Well, I can't tell you that and the reason for that is obvious. I can't tell you about the details of any criminal investigation because our goal is to make sure that anyone we're pursuing doesn't know what we're doing and also anyone who might not be charged with a crime is not unfairly smeared.

What happened is that the attorney general and I have periodically looked at these facts that have been developed and made a judgment based on the totality of the circumstances as to whether he should remain involved in it, and if he's to be out of it what I should do with it.

And so I just decided that based on what I knew about it, it was appropriate for the reasons I said for the attorney general to step aside -- a conclusion he reached on his own -- and for me to assign it to an independent United States attorney.

O'BRIEN: We have been listening to the No. 2 person at the U.S. Department of Justice, James Comey talking to reporters, announcing that a special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate that politically sensitive investigation as to who, perhaps in the Bush administration, at least that is the allegation, named a CIA operative in the midst of the run-up to war in Iraq.

His name -- the special prosecutor's name is Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago. He's described as Elliot Ness with a Harvard degree and a sense of humor. Sounds like a rare man indeed. We'll be seeing and hearing from him in the near future, for sure.


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