In a move cheered by Democrats, Deputy Attorney General James Comey announced that Ashcroft had stepped aside to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest after reviewing evidence recently developed in the inquiry. He would not specify the nature of that evidence.
Comey said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago, a veteran of terrorism and political corruption cases, would take over as a special prosecutor and would be given "the tools to conduct a completely independent investigation."
"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 (news - web sites) for approvals," Comey said.
Comey, however, will retain ultimate authority over Fitzgerald as the acting attorney general for the case. Comey rejected choosing a complete outsider to be the special counsel.
Investigators want to know who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer, to syndicated columnist Robert Novak in July. Plame is married to former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, who has said he believes his wife's identity was disclosed to discredit his assertions that the Bush administration exaggerated Iraq (news - web sites)'s nuclear capabilities to build a case for war.
The leaker could be charged with a felony if identified. The FBI (news - web sites) has interviewed more than three dozen Bush administration officials, including political adviser Karl Rove and press secretary Scott McClellan.
Fitzgerald, 43, who recently handled the corruption indictment of ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan, was hailed by Comey as an "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor."