The prosecutor in the CIA leak case was preparing to outline possible charges before a federal grand jury as early as today, even as the FBI conducted last-minute interviews in the high-profile investigation, according to people familiar with the case.
Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald was seen in Washington yesterday with lawyers in the case, and some White House officials braced for at least one indictment when the grand jury meets today. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, is said by several people in the case to be a main focus, but not the only one.
In a possible sign that Fitzgerald may charge one or more officials with illegally disclosing Valerie Plame's CIA affiliation, FBI agents as recently as Monday night interviewed at least two people in her D.C. neighborhood to determine whether they knew she worked for the CIA before she was unmasked with the help of senior Bush administration officials. Two neighbors told the FBI they were shocked to learn she was a CIA operative.
The FBI interviews suggested the prosecutor wanted to show that Plame's status was covert, and that there was damage from the revelation that she worked at the CIA.
The news of the eleventh-hour moves came on the same day that Cheney himself was implicated in the chain of events that led to Plame's being revealed. In a report in the New York Times that the White House pointedly did not dispute, Fitzgerald was said to have notes taken by Libby showing that he learned about Plame from the vice president a month before she was identified by columnist Robert D. Novak.
There is no indication Cheney did anything illegal or improper, but this is the first evidence to surface that shows he knew of Plame well before she became a household name.
Fitzgerald's investigation has centered on whether senior administration officials knowingly revealed Plame's identity in an effort to discredit a Bush administration critic -- her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. On July 6, 2003, Wilson accused the administration in The Washington Post and the Times of using flawed intelligence to justify the war with Iraq. Eight days later, Novak revealed Plame's name and her identity as a CIA operative.
White House on edge
The grand jury, whose term expires Friday, is scheduled for a session today. Before a vote on an indictment, prosecutors typically leave the room so jurors can deliberate in private and ask that the jury alert them when it has reached a decision.
Unlike the jury in a criminal trial, grand jurors are not weighing proof of guilt or innocence. They decide whether there is probable cause to charge someone with a crime, and they must agree unanimously to indict. The prosecutor could seek to seal any indictments until he announces the charges.
Officials described a White House on edge. "Everybody just wants this week over," said one official.
The key figures in the probe, including Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Libby, attended staff meetings and planned President Bush's next political and policy moves. Others sat nervously at their desks, fielding calls from reporters and insisting they were in the dark about what the next 24 hours would bring.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted this storm will soon pass. But officials are bracing for the kind of political tsunami that swamped Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in their second terms and could change the course of this presidency.
It is not clear what charges Fitzgerald will seek, if any. After setting out on his original investigation, he won explicit authority to also consider perjury and other crimes government officials might have committed during the nearly two-year-long investigation. Fitzgerald spokesman Randall Samborn declined to comment.
Fitzgerald and his investigative team have questioned more than two dozen officials from the White House, the vice president's office, the CIA and the State Department as well as residents of Wilson's neighborhood.
Fitzgerald has looked closely not only at the possible crimes, but also the context in which they would have been committed. This search, say lawyers in the case, has provided him a rare, perhaps even unprecedented, glimpse into the White House effort to justify the Iraq war -- and rebut its critics.
The trail has often led to Cheney's office, which officials describe as ground zero in the effort in promote, execute and defend the Iraq war and the campaign to convince the American people and the world that Saddam Hussein had amassed a stockpile of the most dangerous kinds of weapons. According to the report in yesterday's Times, the investigation also led to Cheney himself.
Cheney has the security clearance to review and discuss classified material, and no evidence has been made public to suggest he did anything illegal. But this is the first time the vice president has been directly linked to the chain of events that eventually led to Plame's identity being disclosed.
McClellan said Cheney has always been honest with the American people. He dismissed as "ridiculous" a question about whether Bush stood by Cheney's account of his role in the matter. In an interview in September 2003, Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert he did not know Wilson or who sent him to Africa. Officials said Cheney was careful to distance himself from Wilson in the interview without telling a lie about what he knew about the diplomat and his wife.
Two lawyers involved in the case said that, based on Fitzgerald's questions, the prosecutor has been aware of Libby's June 12 conversation with Cheney since the early days of his investigation. The lawyers said Libby did record in his notes that Cheney relayed to him that Wilson's wife may have had a role in Wilson's taking the CIA-sponsored mission to Niger. According to a source familiar with Libby's testimony, he previously told the grand jury he believed he heard of Wilson's wife first from reporters.
The Times reported that Libby said Cheney learned information about Plame from former CIA director George J. Tenet.
Tenet said yesterday he has not discussed Fitzgerald's investigation in the past and does not want to talk about it before the prosecutor reaches his conclusions.
A retired senior CIA official close to Tenet, said the former director and his deputy, John McLaughlin, were questioned by investigators more than 15 months ago and have not been contacted by them since.
In a sign that Fitzgerald continues to gather evidence, FBI agents interviewed at least two of Wilson's neighbors in the Palisades neighborhood Monday night. Marc Lefkowitz and David Tillotson said yesterday that they told the FBI they had no clue that Plame, who they knew by her married name, Valerie Wilson, worked for the agency until Novak's column appeared.
Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.