Journalist Murray Waas says he knows why. Writing in the Village Voice, Waas says that Ashcroft recused himself from the Plame case under pressure from Justice Department investigators and prosecutors who were concerned about his close ties to Karl Rove. The first time he met with federal investigators, Rove reportedly failed to reveal that he had leaked Plame's identity to Time's Matthew Cooper. As a result, Waas says, investigators were concerned about Rove's veracity -- and also about his long-standing relationship with Ashcroft. Rove had served as an advisor on three of Ashcroft's campaigns.
The tipping point, Waas says, came when Ashcroft received a personal briefing on an FBI interview with Rove. "When Ashcroft was briefed on Rove, that ended the argument," one government official familiar with the process told Waas. "He was going to be removed. And there was going to be a special prosecutor named."
As Waas notes, Deputy Attorney General James Comey seemed to allude to concerns that Ashcroft might leak information back to Rove when he announced Ashcroft's recusal in 2003. Pressed by reporters to explain the reason for Ashcroft's recusal, Comey said: "If you were to speculate in print or in the media about particular people, I think that would be unfair to them. We also don't want people that we might be interested in to know we're interested in them."
Waas says the Justice Department declined to comment for his Village Voice piece. Comey, who has overseen Fitzgerald's investigation in the absence of Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, who has also recused himself, announced earlier this month that he is leaving the Justice Department to become general counsel at Lockheed Martin. Justice Department veteran David Margolis -- and not, as some feared, George W. Bush friend Robert McCallum -- will take over the job of supervising Fitzgerald.