Prosecutor in CIA leak is said to shift his focus

He is reportedly looking into possible perjury

July 23, 2005|By Douglas Frantz, Sonni Efron and Richard B. Schmitt | Douglas Frantz, Sonni Efron and Richard B. Schmitt,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation has shifted his focus from whether White House officials violated a law against exposing undercover agents to determining whether evidence exists to bring perjury or obstruction of justice charges, according to people briefed in recent days on the inquiry's status.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, and his team have made no decision on whether to seek indictments, and there could be benign explanations for differences that have arisen in witnesses' statements to federal agents and a grand jury over how the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent who had worked undercover, was leaked to the press two years ago.

The investigation focused initially on whether administration officials illegally leaked the identity of Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, in a campaign to discredit Wilson after he wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times criticizing the Bush administration's grounds for going to war in Iraq.

According to lawyers familiar with the case, investigators are comparing statements to federal authorities by two top White House aides, Karl Rove and I. Lewis Libby, about Plame's identity with testimony from reporters who have acknowledged talking to the officials.

The sources also said prosecutors are comparing the various statements to the FBI and the grand jury by Rove, who is President Bush's chief political strategist. Rove in his first interview with the FBI did not mention a conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, according to lawyers involved in the case. The White House aide has been interviewed twice by the FBI and made three appearances before the grand jury, they said.

No one suggested that the investigation into who leaked Plame's name has been shelved, and the intensity of the inquiry into possible perjury charges had increased, according to one lawyer familiar with events, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he did not want to anger Fitzgerald.

Rove has not spoken publicly about the issue, but prosecutors told him in October that he was not a target of the investigation, according to his lawyer, Robert Luskin. Rove, through his lawyer, has denied that he was the source of Plame's name.

"I am quite sure that if his status has changed, I would be informed about it," Luskin said in an interview yesterday. "I am not aware of anything that has come to light that would change the facts in front of the prosecutor that would change that assurance.

"He has, from the beginning, been candid, forthcoming and accurate," Luskin said. "There has never been any moment when the government, prosecutors or investigators have suggested that they thought he was being anything but truthful or cooperative."

The investigation's change in emphasis comes as new indications emerged that Fitzgerald's inquiry has gone well beyond scrutinizing the actions of top White House officials, such as Rove and Libby, who is chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, to searching for the source of the leak in other parts of the White House and other executive branch agencies.

A former senior State Department official acknowledged that he testified before the grand jury in Washington, and a congressional source confirmed that Robert Joseph, who was a senior expert on weapons of mass destruction on the White House National Security Council, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he had been questioned by the prosecutor. Karen Hughes, a former top aide to President Bush, also told the committee that she had been questioned, the source said.

In addition, a senior U.S. official said that several State Department officials, including then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, were questioned several months ago about the creation and distribution of a classified memo that mentioned Plame. Prosecutors are interested in the memo because it may have been a vehicle for spreading Plame's name.

Disclosing the name of a CIA undercover agent is a crime in some circumstances, but legal experts have said that the specific elements of the law make it difficult to prove a violation.

Plame was first identified as a CIA operative by Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist, in a July 14, 2003, article, eight days after Wilson's op-ed piece challenged administration claims that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium for its nuclear program from the African nation of Niger.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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