White House waits another nervous day in CIA leak probe

Working against the clock, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald weighed criminal charges against two top presidential aides at the end of a two-year investigation that put President George W. Bush's White House in a state of high suspense.

Fitzgerald faced a Friday expiration of the grand jury that has been investigating the exposure of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. That, if done intentionally, can be a federal crime. Speculation flew across Washington about who would be indicted, or whether Fitzgerald would even bring criminal charges.

At the top of the list: Bush's top political adviser, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Both men put in their normal long day Thursday at the White House.

The prospect of indictments added to the woes of an administration already facing serious political problems.

On a day when the White House dealt with the withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, Rove attended the daily meeting of the senior staff and met with the president late into the evening. Libby was said to have passed up the staff meeting to attend a security briefing.

Two blocks from the White House, Fitzgerald, who has been running the criminal investigation for nearly two years, was at work in his Washington office, considering his next moves in the investigation.

Both Rove and Libby have been advised that they could be charged with wrongdoing, possibly for false statements to the grand jury that has been hearing testimony about discussions with reporters about Plame's identity.

Other possible charges are obstruction of justice or perjury, along with possible violations of a law barring disclosure of the identity of a covert intelligence agent.

Some lawyers have raised the specter of broader conspiracy charges or violations of espionage laws that make it illegal to discuss classified information with anyone who lacks a security clearance.

When the investigation began two years ago, a White House spokesman checked with Rove and Libby, then assured the public that neither was involved in leaking Plame's identity.

In the past several weeks, Libby has acknowledged that he spoke to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and the newspaper has reported that their talks were about Plame's CIA status.

Rove's legal problems stem in part from his failure to tell prosecutors about a conversation in which he told Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA. The president's top political adviser says the conversation slipped his mind.

Fitzgerald's office found out about the Rove-Cooper contact last year when Rove's lawyer discovered an e-mail that the prosecutor had not previously asked for. The e-mail memorialized the Rove-Cooper phone call.

As late as this week, Fitzgerald was still hunting for witnesses who could undercut Rove's assertion that he had forgotten about the conversation.

Rove's legal team is making contingency plans, consulting with former Justice Department official Mark Corallo about what defenses could be mounted in court and in public.

Fitzgerald met with Rove attorney Robert Luskin at a private law firm Tuesday, heightening White House fears for Rove's future.

According to Cooper's testimony, Rove told him of Plame's CIA status in a conversation about Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson on July 11, 2003. That conversation came five days after Wilson had accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

Columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's name and her CIA status on July 14, five days after talking to Rove and eight days after Wilson made his claim about Iraq intelligence, AP reported. V.A.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team