Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee denying a request by nine committee Democrats seeking information about the Valerie Plame case.
The contents of the letter were described by a congressional aide and an administration official, who have both read the letter. It is unclear as to when, or whether even at all, the text of the letter will be released to the public.
In the letter, Gonzalez asserted that the Justice Department would not provide any information to members of Congress as long as a criminal investigation of the Plame matter was still ongoing.
But committee Democrats, in their request that Gonzalez turn over the information, had cited recent news reports and court filings by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, indicating that virtually all aspects of the criminal investigation had been completed as long as six months ago.
A senior congressional aide told me today that committee members were willing to forego specific information as to what Fitzgerald has uncovered, and instead focus on whether the special prosecutor had been faced with any legal obstacles prohibiting a prosecution.
"If existing legal authorities are insufficient to ensure successful prosecution of these kinds of breaches," nine Democrats on the House Intelligence committee, wrote Gonzalez on April 14, "the committee should be made aware of that fact immediately. The Congress and administration have a responsibility to ensure that our judiciary system has the tools necessary to ensure that those who violate oaths to protect classified information and the identity of federal undercover intelligence officers are brought to justice."
A senior congressional aide told me that it was possible, for example, that Fitzgerald might have identified the Bush administration official who had leaked Plame's identity as a clandestine CIA operative to columnist Robert Novak but then had been stymied from pursuing a prosecution for any number of reasons.
A potential prosecution might require the disclosure of classified information, the congressional aide noted, prohibiting a prosecutor from bringing charges. In addition, under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, it is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for disclosing the identity of a clandestine U.S. intelligence official. But there are such significant hurdles under the statute to bringing criminal charges, the aide pointed out, that Fitzgerald might have uncovered the perpetrator, yet still feel that his hands are tied to do anything about it.
A Justice Department spokesman did not return a phone call for comment last night. But if the Department does make some public comment, I will update this post at that time.
I will have more on this story soon.