Prosecutor nearing decision on criminal charges in CIA leak
Rove is facing 4th appearance before grand jury
WASHINGTON -- Two years after the White House assured the public it had not leaked a CIA officer's identity, a prosecutor is approaching a decision on whether to file criminal charges.
The special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, has assembled evidence that top presidential aides had numerous contacts with reporters in the matter.
Fitzgerald has a variety of options as he weighs who might have broken a law that bars the intentional unmasking of a CIA officer. Defense lawyers are concerned that Fitzgerald might pursue other charges, such as false statements, obstruction of justice, or mishandling classified information.
Before the decisions are made, Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff and the presidential confidant on political issues, will make a fourth grand jury appearance, perhaps as early as today.
Rove did talk about the CIA officer in question, Valerie Plame, with two of the reporters who published her identity, and has been summoned by the prosecutor to answer several additional questions.
Plame is the wife of a Bush administration critic, Joseph C. Wilson IV. A former US ambassador, Wilson attracted the White House's attention in 2003 for saying the administration had manipulated prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Rove's appearance carries some risks. ''Criminal defense lawyers cringe at a witness going back a fourth time," said Kirby Behre, a defense lawyer versed in white-collar crime accusations.
However, people in the spotlight ''feel if they don't cooperate, it could mean their job," Behre said in an interview.
Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis I. ''Scooter" Libby, also is being given additional scrutiny after Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, turned over notes reporting that the two had a third, previously undisclosed conversation about Wilson.
The discussion occurred even before Wilson's public criticism of the administration's handling of intelligence on Iraq.
The White House had made strong denials two years ago that Rove and Libby had ever leaked the identity of Wilson's wife. Bush pledged to fire anyone who did. As the new evidence has emerged, the strategy seems to have changed.
Bush now says he will fire someone only if the person committed a crime. Also, lawyers no longer contest that their clients discussed the identity of Wilson's wife with reporters. Instead, the lawyers are trying to make the case that exposing her covert status was inadvertent and not part of a conspiracy.
''Did Karl purposely set out to disclose Valerie Plame's identity in order to punish Joe Wilson for his criticism? The answer is, 'No,' " said Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin.
Whatever the outcome, Fitzgerald has burnished his reputation as a tough, hard-charging prosecutor. He got a judge to send Miller to prison for 85 days for refusing to testify, and he persuaded other reporters to cooperate.
It was Fitzgerald's letter to Libby's lawyer in September that helped resolve the impasse over Miller, resulting in her testimony.
A US attorney with a Republican affiliation, Fitzgerald has a reputation for being willing to take on politicians of either major party in corruption inquiries.
Currently, Fitzgerald's office is prosecuting a former Republican governor of Illinois, George H. Ryan, on varied corruption charges.