And then there were

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And then there were two. Time’s Timothy Burger picks up the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame CIA referral story and takes it a few yards farther down field.

According to Burger, Justice has begun a “preliminary inquiry” to determine whether there should be a full-fledged FBI investigation.

My understanding of these things is that this is basically the minimum that they must do in taking cognizance of the CIA’s referral and making a formal determination whether or not to act on it. So in a sense it doesn’t tell us that much more than the MSNBC story did.

On the other hand, it’s another clue that a formal bureaucratic process has been triggered: a step A, followed by step B, followed by step C, and so on.

People at Justice can shut that process down, of course — either for legit reasons or illegitimate ones. But these are specific decisions in the hands of people who are, at least in theory, politically accountable. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of John Ashcroft, unless he decides to recuse himself.

So if a FBI investigation isn’t initiated, people will know who to ask and they’ll be able to ask why he or his deputies decided not to follow up on the CIA’s recommendation.

Howard Dean is already banging the drum. And let’s just say I know of a few senators who aren’t running for president who want to start banging that drum too.

Now, one other point. Both the NBC and the Time story have said that the White House denies the charge. That, I believe, is actually not true. At least not precisely. On September 16th, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan had this to say

Q On the Robert Novak-Joseph Wilson situation, Novak reported earlier this year — quoting — “anonymous government sources” telling him that Wilson’s wife was a CIA operative. Now, this is apparently a federal offense, to burn the cover a CIA operative. Wilson now believes that the person who did this was Karl Rove. He’s quoted from a speech last month as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” Did Karl Rove tell that —

MR. McCLELLAN: I haven’t heard that. That’s just totally ridiculous. But we’ve already addressed this issue. If I could find out who anonymous people were, I would. I just said, it’s totally ridiculous.

Q But did Karl Rove do it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I said, it’s totally ridiculous.

That’s a classic non-denial denial. Probably because, as Tim Noah noted a few days ago, McClellan just doesn’t know — and if he’s smart, he’ll probably keep it that way. On the other hand, the fact that Rove didn’t authorize McClellan to issue a categorical denial is awfully revealing …

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