Washington The prosecutor in the CIA leak probe set the stage Wednesday for possible criminal charges, meeting with the grand jury that heard months of testimony and then consulting with the chief judge at the courthouse where the legal drama has unfolded.
The White House braced for at least one indictment by week's end, possibly Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. It also was worried that President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, remained in jeopardy of being charged with false statements.
Rove's legal team made contingency plans just in case, consulting with former Justice Department official Mark Corallo and GOP strategist Ed Gillespie to prepare a strategy for defending against an indictment in both court and the public.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald met with Rove attorney Robert Luskin at a private law firm office Tuesday, heightening White House fears for Rove's future.
FBI agents working for Fitzgerald checked facts this week that could be used in a case, including whether Rove made any comments to a former colleague about his contact with one of the reporters who disclosed that Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson's wife worked as an undercover CIA officer.
Fitzgerald was appointed nearly two years ago to determine whether any presidential aides violated a federal law prohibiting the intentional unmasking of an undercover CIA officer such as Valerie Plame. Her identity was divulged in a column by Robert Novak in July 2003 after her husband, a former ambassador, accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
The prosecutor has discussed other charges with defense lawyers in recent weeks, including false statements, obstruction of justice and mishandling of classified information. Libby and Rove have emerged as two of the key figures in the probe.
The grand jury's term expires on Friday, and the panel met with Fitzgerald's team for about three hours Wednesday before adjourning for the day.
The administrative assistant to Thomas Hogan, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the nation's capital, disclosed that Hogan met with Fitzgerald. The assistant, Sheldon Snook, declined to say what was discussed. Prosecutors wrapping up a criminal investigation can meet with the chief judge for a variety of reasons, such as extending the life of the current grand jury, empaneling a new grand jury, temporarily sealing indictments, or simply preparing logistics for indictments or the closing down of a case.
Beyond Libby and Rove, Fitzgerald also has interviewed officials at the State Department and CIA about their conversations with the White House and their access to information about Plame and a trip her husband took for the CIA to check on pre-Iraq war intelligence.
Though weary from days of intense speculation about the fate of two of their most senior colleagues, White House aides tried to carry on with their normal work. Rove and Libby joined other administration officials at the daily White House senior staff meeting, as usual. Libby has been on crutches after breaking a bone in his foot.
"We're focused on the work at hand," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who added, "We obviously continue to follow developments in the news."
The public appeared divided about the controversy. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken over the weekend found 39 percent of Americans believe the leak of Plame's name was illegal, another 39 percent believed it was unethical but not illegal and the remainder saw nothing wrong or were not sure.
Fitzgerald has been in Washington since Monday. Over the past two days he has dispatched FBI agents to conduct 11th-hour interviews, including talks with neighbors of Wilson and Plame, asking if they had any inkling that Plame worked for the CIA.
Such interviews may help Fitzgerald establish that Plame had carefully protected her CIA identity, part of the process of determining whether the disclosure of her identity amounted to a crime that hurt national security.
When the controversy erupted two years ago, the White House adamantly insisted no presidential aides had been involved in leaking Plame's identity. But Fitzgerald's team meticulously gathered evidence showing Rove met with two reporters before Plame's name was published, and Libby had contact with at least three reporters.
The White House's defenders adapted their strategy, saying that any information Rove and Libby may have passed on about Plame came from reporters and not classified sources.
But in the last two weeks, even that assertion has been undercut with the revelation that Libby got information from Cheney, and that Rove may have gotten information from Libby.
Forcing testimony from journalists about confidential sources, prosecutors assembled evidence that Rove talked with Novak and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper before both wrote stories outing Plame. And the prosecutor determined Libby had contacts with Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
When Novak revealed Plame's identity, the columnist said his sources were two senior administration officials. Rove is said to be one of the sources, but the other isn't publicly known.
Prosecutors also have zeroed in on some inconsistencies. For instance, Rove and Cooper's account differs as to the original reason for their contact. And prosecutors have raised concern that Rove originally only testified about his contact with Novak without acknowledging the Cooper discussion.
After Rove's attorney located an e-mail referring to that conversation, Rove volunteered to return to the grand jury and discuss his conversation with Cooper.