Washington's imagination running wild over CIA leak

City is all abuzz as probe winds down in Plame affair


Washington -- The talk peppers power lunches at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill; it is among the choicest of dishes at the bar at Local 16, where lower-level congressional staffers congregate. Partisan hangouts, in particular, are overrun with the scuttlebutt, from Democrats clinking beers at Stetson's to Republicans mooning over martinis at Smith Point. And just try changing the subject on the fall cocktail party circuit.

Washington, which delights in a political scandal, is abuzz over what will happen this week when special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald concludes a two-year investigation of a high-profile CIA leak - and whether he will issue career-crushing indictments to some of the most powerful Republicans in the land.

"Jaws are clenched, people are biting their nails, waiting for next week," said Mary Ann Akers, who writes the "Heard on the Hill" gossip column for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. "Let me tell you that if there are no indictments at this point, it's going to be a huge emotional letdown. It will be like promising a pony to a child and then not delivering."

As the term of the grand jury investigating the leak winds down - it expires Friday - anticipation of the outcome has been rising.

Everyone's whispering about who in the Bush administration might have outed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press - the main suspects being two senior White House aides, Karl Rove, President Bush's senior political adviser; and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff - and who, if anyone, might be indicted as a result.

For some - you can guess their leanings - the sense of anticipation has them calling this the season of "Fitzmas," a time of glad tidings and maybe a surprise gift or two. For them, Santa is Fitzgerald, and the prospect of his delivering a big sack of scandal has these politically attuned Washingtonians as giddy as overgrown 7-year-olds - except, of course, for those expecting coal.

Even the noninsiders are obsessed.

"A situation like this can change everybody's lives," said Willow Darsie, who works at a Washington think tank. It doesn't matter that her employer, the Aspen Institute, is avowedly nonpartisan: "Everybody is holding their breath."

For those even further out of the loop, there's "Indictment Bingo," a contest on the Washington-based gossip blog Wonkette.com; as well as drinking games: When Bonita Leung and her friends at George Washington University Law School watch Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, they take a sip every time the subject comes up, which is a lot.

"It's a pretty easy game," said Leung, 27.

In fact, she said, it's a subject much easier to drink to than discuss. Even for politicos, the case is incredibly confusing: It revolves around which White House official (if any) leaked Plame's identity in 2003 to reporters, including Judith Miller of The New York Times, who spent 85 days in jail before agreeing to testify; whether that tip-off counts as a felony offense (the leaker would have had to know that Plame's identity was supposed to be a secret); and whether it was part of an effort to punish Plame's husband, diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who challenged the administration's case for invading Iraq.

Throw in that Libby or Rove might be indicted not for the leak itself but for perjury committed during the grand jury investigation, and you have the kind of complex, inside-the-Beltway scandal that could confound the finest tongue-waggers.

Still, the gossip has been running rampant because it feeds on Washington's love of uncovering secrets, said Garrett M. Graff, the editor of fishbowlDC.com, a Washington blog, who also writes a gossip column for Washingtonian magazine

Thus far, he said, Fitzgerald's long-running investigation has been so leakproof that the details are virtually unknown.

"This could be nothing, or this could be larger than Watergate," Graff said. "We're at the point in the scandal development where it could go any way. It's possible that no one is talking about this in a week or two weeks, and it's just as likely that this could end up paralyzing the Republican Party in Washington."

Two years of near silence have prompted the city's imagination, normally overburdened with news, to run wild. Graff's favorite rumor to date: That The Times' Miller is actually an undercover CIA agent.

Also, even though the gossip doesn't involve botched hotel break-ins or White House trysts, it concerns a president known for controlling spin like a championship bowler. In fact, in contrast with the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which used idle talk for strategic ends (and were often victimized by it), both Bush administrations have tried to staple shut Washington's loosest lips, said Diane McLellan, a longtime Washingtonian who in the late 1970s and early 1980s wrote "The Ear," a Washington Star gossip column.

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