Will there be an investigation into whether Bush administration officials violated the law and undermined national security in order to mount a political vendetta? It’s up to the CIA and the Justice Department. Cynics, start your engines.

As first noted here (and further explored here), several weeks ago, Bush officials lashed out at former Ambassador Joseph Wilson by telling journalists–including conservative columnist Robert Novak–that Wilson’s wife was a deep-cover CIA operative working in the field of weapons counterproliferation. Novak and others reported what they were heard from these administration sources. Their stories either blew her cover or falsely branded a woman, who is known to friends as an energy analyst in a private firm, as a CIA officer. Wilson will not say whether his wife is a spy. But the prevailing assumption among journalists covering this controversy is that she is (or was) a CIA operative. After all, administration officials keep repeating this claim. And in case you forgot, Wilson’s sin (in the eyes of the vengeful Bushies) was that he went public about a trip he took to Niger in February 2002–at the request of the CIA–during which he investigated the allegation that Iraq was shopping for uranium there. He concluded that the charge was “highly doubtful.” His account undercut White House claims that it had no reason to suspect President Bush was not speaking accurately when he included this dubious allegation in his case for war during his 2003 State of the Union address.

If Wilson’s wife is an Agency op specializing in counter-WMD work, then it is possible that Bush officials damaged the intelligence establishment’s effort to thwart the spread of weapons of mass destruction and broke the law. Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, it is a crime for anyone with access to classified information to reveal intentionally the identity of an undercover intelligence officer. The punishment: a fine up to $50,000 and/or up to ten years in jail. (Journalists are generally not covered by the law.)

So if a crime of this sort has been committed, where’s the investigation? In a July 24 letter to FBI director Robert Mueller, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, requested that the FBI “immediately launch an investigation to determine the source of this [leaked] information and assess whether there is enough evidence to refer the matter for criminal prosecution.” In a statement, Schumer noted that investigations into such leaks are not unusual. In June 2002, the FBI investigated the allegation that someone had leaked classified congressional testimony provided by Lt. General Michael Hayden, the head of the National Security Agency. The Bureau, according to Schumer, questioned 37 members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and about 60 staffmembers. Vice President Dick Cheney had been one of the instigators of that inquiry. “The current scandal,” Schumer says, “is just as serious as the one from June 2002.” He adds, “This is one of the most reckless and nasty things I’ve seen in all my years of government. Leaking the name of a CIA agent is tantamount to putting a gun to that agent’s head. It compromises her safety and the safety of her loved ones, not to mention those in her network and other operatives she may have dealt with. On top of that, the officials who have done it may have also seriously jeopardized the national security of this nation.” (Without knowing exactly what Wilson’s wife did for the CIA, it is not possible to judge fully the consequences of this leak. But Schumer’s melodramatic appraisal could well be justified.)

Is the FBI hot on the trail? Not exactly, not yet. And that’s partly because the CIA gets to say whether there is a full-fledged criminal inquiry. In other words, the CIA will determine if the Justice Department and the FBI investigate Bush administration officials. According to several government sources familiar with leaks investigations, this is how it usually works: if the CIA learns of an authorized disclosure of classified information and wants to see the case pursued, it refers the allegation to the Justice Department. The DOJ then evaluates the legal issues and decides whether to have the FBI investigate. After Schumer made his formal request to Mueller, the FBI kicked the matter over to the CIA, according to a government source monitoring the case. Does the CIA want an investigation? Mark Mansfield, a spokesman for the CIA, declined to comment. And what about the congressional intelligence committees? A Senate intelligence committee source says that committee members have made inquiries but that nothing major is likely to happen until the CIA informs the Justice Department that it suspects the law was broken.

By now, you see the potential problem. For an investigation to proceed, it appears, the CIA–and that probably means CIA chief George Tenet–has to ask for one, and Attorney General John Ashcroft (or an underling) has to greenlight it. Will either of these two Bush allies be willing to take on the White House and trigger an inquiry that could embarrass, if not threaten, the Bush administration? The relationship between the CIA and the White House has already been strained recently. War hawks in the administration–including Cheney–reportedly leaned on the CIA before the invasion of Iraq to produce intelligence to back up their claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was in cahoots with al Qaeda. Unidentified CIA officials fought back by telling reporters that the White House was trying to pressure the CIA and rig the intelligence.

During the Nigergate scandal, the CIA contradicted explanations offered by the White House, which at one point tried to pin the blame for this screw-up entirely on the CIA. And a new–and slim–book by Laurie Mylroie, a neoconservative scholar associated with the American Enterprise Institute, accuses the CIA of actually trying to thwart Bush’s war on terrorism. Mylroie’s book–endorsed by Pentagon adviser Richard Perle–may well reflect the suspicion with which some neocons in (and close to) the Bush administration view the CIA.

Amid all this, would Tenet want to get into a new pissing match with the White House and place Bush officials in the crosshairs? That would be the bureaucratic equivalent of declaring nuclear war. And despite the tensions of late between the White House and the CIA on Iraq-related issues, Tenet certainly owes Bush. After 9/11–which was, in part, an intelligence failure–Bush enthusiastically defended Tenet’s CIA and embraced the director. There was no talk from the White House of replacing him. (It probably didn’t hurt that Tenet, a savvy Washington survivor, had named CIA headquarters after Bush’s father, who spent one year as CIA director in the 1970s.)

Will Tenet dare ask Ashcroft to unleash the FBI’s gumshoes upon the White House? Would Ashcroft and the FBI mount an unfettered, let-the-chips-fall inquiry? And if either the CIA or the Justice Department declines to pursue this issue, can the public be confident that the decision was based on legitimate–not political–grounds?

No official–as far as I can tell–has yet publicly broached the possibility of a special counsel. The independent counsel law no longer exists. But the Bush administration could still on its own appoint a special counsel to examine the Wilson leak. The Bush White House, though, has shown little interest in determining if vindictive administration officials did disclose classified information to harm Wilson and his family. Once summer is over and Congress returns to Washington, several Democratic legislators–including Schumer–are expected to ask if an appropriate investigation is under way. If one is not, they might have no recourse other than to call for a special counsel.

The leak about Wilson’s wife was an ugly act. Wilson is convinced it was arranged by the White House to intimidate others who might consider disclosing information troubling for the administration. If Bush officials did purposefully destroy the cover of a government employee combating WMD proliferation in order to punish Wilson, certainly an accounting is deserved and punishment warranted. But is Tenet in any position to sic the FBI on the White House, upon which he depends for his budget and his own job? Can FBI officials who answer to Ashcroft be sure their careers will not be impaired should they vigorously investigate Bush officials? Perils abound for the spooks and law enforcement officers who chase this case. After all, the suspects are people who went after a man’s family.

The public may not learn–officially–whether the CIA requests an investigation. The CIA has good reason to keep its decision under wraps. If the CIA or the Justice Department were to announce that the Agency had asked for an investigation, it would be public confirmation that Wilson’s wife was (and may still be) a CIA officer. Members of Congress and officials at the CIA and the FBI, though, will be in a position to know if an inquiry goes forward. And news of an investigation–or the lack thereof–will likely slip out. In the meantime, the few Senate and House members who have expressed outrage over the Wilson leak ought to start considering the next step. The only way to assure that there is an honest investigation devoid of bureaucratic intrigues could well be to turn to a special counsel and free Tenet and Ashcroft from deciding whether the Bush White House ought to be probed for a dirty deed that might have threatened national security.

—–Watch for David Corn’s forthcoming The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception, due out from Crown Publishers in September. For info on the book, click here.