Uncertain days for Bush team

Rove testifies today in CIA leak inquiry


WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove nosed his Jaguar out of the garage at his home in Northwest Washington in the pre-dawn gloom, starting another day in which he would be dealing with a troubled Supreme Court nomination, post-hurricane reconstruction and all the other issues that come across the desk of President Bush's most influential aide.

But Rove's first challenge on Wednesday morning came before he cleared his driveway: how to get past the five television crews and the three photographers waiting for him. He flashed his blinding high beams into the camera lenses and sped by.

That is the way things are for the White House these days. The routines are the same. But everything, in the glare of the final stages of a criminal investigation that has reached to the highest levels of power in Washington, is different.

Rove is scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury today, the fourth time he will have done so in the case, which centers on the disclosure of an undercover CIA officer's identity.

Rove, deputy White House chief of staff for policy and senior adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, are the most prominent administration officials to find themselves squirming under the attention of the hard-nosed special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and the attendant media scrutiny. But the inquiry has swept up a dozen or more other administration officials who have been questioned by investigators or have testified before the grand jury, and, should it lead to indictments of anyone at a senior level, it has the potential to upend the professional lives of everyone at the White House for the remainder of Bush's second term.

The result, say administration officials and friends and allies on the outside who speak regularly with them, is a mood of intense uncertainty in the White House that veers in some cases into fear of the personal and political consequences and anger at having been caught in the snare of a special prosecutor. And given how badly things have been going for Bush and his team on other fronts - an opinion poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center put his approval rating at 38 percent, a new low - they hardly have deep reserves of internal enthusiasm or external goodwill to draw on.

"Everyone is going about the work at hand while bracing for the worst case," said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bush joked late last year with Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, about why Cooper was not yet in jail for fighting a subpoena demanding that he testify about a conversation with a source who later turned out to be Rove. These days, though, the leak investigation is almost never spoken of openly within the West Wing, and certainly not made light of, Bush administration officials say.

Lawyers for most of the officials who have testified before the grand jury have chosen not to share information with one another, leaving colleagues largely in the dark about what others are telling Fitzgerald.

There is a presumption inside the White House that anyone who was indicted would resign or go on leave to fight the charges, though it is unclear what planning has taken place for that possibility.

The prospect of a White House without Rove, Bush's longtime strategist, has some allies of Bush in a near-panic, fearful that without him the administration would lose the one person capable of enforcing discipline across a party that has become increasingly fractious and that is almost at war with itself over the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

With the White House stumbling and preoccupied, some allies of the president already see a policy void that is being filled by other prominent Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who recently outmaneuvered the administration to win passage of an amendment in the Senate that would set new standards to guard against the use of torture in the interrogation of detainees in the fight against terrorism.

Asked about the case yesterday, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, portrayed Bush as eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation. The case centers on whether administration officials disclosed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame as part of an effort to distance the White House from criticism by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who became a vocal critic of how the administration had used pre-war intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs to justify invasion.

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