For prosecutor, CIA leak case comes down to matter of law

July 17, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The White House aides and journalists at the center of Patrick J. Fitzgerald's probe into how a spy's cover was blown have little in common with the terrorists and mobsters he has pursued for most of his career.

But for Fitzgerald, a prosecutor known for being as tough and relentless as he is brilliant, that's a distinction without a difference.

The 44-year-old Brooklyn native seems as determined to find out whether one of President Bush's top advisers is responsible for the leak as he was to build a case against Osama bin Laden, whom he indicted in 1998, or to send New York crime family captain John Gambino to prison, which he did in 1994.

It's a matter of law, and anyone who knows Fitzgerald knows he doesn't hang back when he believes a crime might have been committed - no matter what the crime might be.

"At a certain point, we have to yield to law because if we don't, we're lost," Fitzgerald told a judge this month, on the day New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail at his request for refusing to testify about her sources.

The mentality is classic Fitzgerald, colleagues and friends say, calling it the secret to his success. But the aggressive tactics that flow from it have, at times, drawn controversy.

Fitzgerald's decision to force journalists to reveal their sources has been criticized by reporters and some legal analysts, who say it could irreparably damage the news media's ability to do their work. Others, including some critics, call it a clever and, above all, necessary move that could help Fitzgerald solve a puzzling case.

Felt at highest echelons

Nineteen months into his investigation, nobody has been charged with a crime, but reverberations of the prosecutor's hard-nosed tactics are being felt at the highest echelons of government.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have sat for questioning by Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney from Chicago chosen by the Justice Department in December 2003 to handle the leak case.

Karl Rove, a top Bush aide, is under fire for his involvement in the matter, after Fitzgerald subpoenaed e-mails from Matt Cooper, a Time magazine correspondent, detailing a conversation in which Rove mentioned the agent, Valerie Plame, although not by name.

Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, has been fielding daily questions from journalists at the White House demanding to know why he denied two years ago that Rove was involved.

Miller is on Day 11 of her jail stay.

Fitzgerald declined, through his office, to be interviewed for this article. But friends, colleagues and adversaries say the aggressive methods he has employed in the CIA leak case are typical of the workaholic Chicago prosecutor, an Amherst College Phi Beta Kappa in math and economics with a Harvard law degree, who has always excelled at taking unorthodox approaches to mind-boggling problems.

"Pat always sees beyond the obvious in a case," said David N. Kelley, a friend who worked organized crime and terrorism cases alongside Fitzgerald in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

One night, shortly after both had started there, Kelley gazed down at stacks of files in a case he was handling, certain he was about to lose. Colleagues who came by to page through his notes and research agreed, one by one, that Kelley was doomed. Not Fitzgerald.

"Pat looked at it and said to me, `Have you thought about it this way?' And I hadn't. And it's suddenly like someone had flicked the lights on," said Kelley, now Manhattan's top federal prosecutor. Kelley worked all night drafting a brief based on Fitzgerald's idea and salvaged his case.

`An amazing brain'

Fitzgerald was born Dec. 22, 1960, the son of Irish immigrants - his father was a doorman on Manhattan's Upper East Side - who raised him in Flatbush. He won a scholarship to attend the Jesuit Regis High School, one of the city's best, working as a school janitor and a doorman to save money for college.

Even among the academic elite at Amherst, he stood out. Strikingly intelligent, he had a gift for distilling huge amounts of complex information into a simple, understandable narrative that his classmates could understand. Friends would turn to him after economics class for a translation of the day's lesson, Tony Bouza said.

"He was born with an amazing brain," Bouza said. And Fitzgerald always took pains to be "unassuming and nonintimidating," aware that his intellect might put people off.

Still, there were early signs of his inner grit. Fitzgerald took up rugby - a bruising sport he would continue through college, law school and his early days as a young lawyer in Manhattan - and allowed his friends glimpses of what Bouza called a "clever, sarcastic wit."

All were traits that would serve him well as a prosecutor in New York, where colleagues marveled at Fitzgerald's ability to weave together large amounts of evidence into a compelling case and his flair for presenting it to a jury in a simple, convincing way.

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