Tuesday, October 25, 2005
WASHINGTON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - With charges expected as early as Wednesday, federal officials investigating the exposure of CIA operative Valerie Plame conducted last-minute interviews with her neighbors and associates of Karl Rove and other top White House aides, lawyers said on Tuesday.
Marc Lefkowitz, who lives across the street from Plame, told Reuters two FBI agents asked him on Monday if he knew about Plame's CIA work before her identity was leaked to the press in 2003. Lefkowitz said he told them: "I didn't know."
Two lawyers involved in the case said such questioning could indicated that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald intended to charge administration officials for the leak itself, in addition to possible charges for easier-to-prove crimes like perjury and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors also questioned a Rove colleague and other witnesses, lawyers said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan would neither confirm nor deny a New York Times report that Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, learned about Plame in a conversation with Cheney on June 12, 2003, weeks before her identity appeared in a newspaper column on July 14, 2003.
Lawyers involved in the case said Fitzgerald appeared close to bringing indictments against top administration officials, with an announcement expected as early as Wednesday, when the grand jury is scheduled to reconvene. The grand jury will expire on Friday unless Fitzgerald extends it.
Fitzgerald's investigation has centered on Libby and Rove, President George W. Bush's top political adviser. Other aides may also be charged, the lawyers said.
White House officials were anxiously awaiting the outcome since any indicted officials are expected to resign immediately. If there are indictments, Bush is likely to make a public statement to try to reassure Americans he is committed to honesty and integrity in government.
IRAQ, NIGER, URANIUM?
Plame's identity was leaked after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the administration of twisting prewar intelligence on Iraq. Wilson based the criticism in part on a CIA-sponsored mission he made to Africa in 2002 over an intelligence report that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger.
The New York Times report about the previously undisclosed conversation on June 12, 2003, put a spotlight on Cheney and raised questions about assertions he made in a September 2003 television interview that he did not know Wilson or who sent him to Niger.
Administration officials had sought to cast Wilson's trip as a boondoggle arranged by his wife, and in talking about her role, they revealed her identity, people close to the case said. Wilson said the CIA sent him on the mission after Cheney's office sought information about the Niger report.
Asked if Cheney always tells the truth to the American people, McClellan said: "Yes." He dismissed as "ridiculous" a question about whether Bush stood by Cheney's account of his role in the matter. "The vice president, like the president, is a straightforward, plain-spoken person," McClellan said.
The Times account of the June 2003 conversation also appeared to contradict Libby's federal grand jury testimony that he learned about Wilson's wife from reporters. Lawyers in the case say Fitzgerald is considering charging Libby for making false statements and possibly obstruction of justice.
Libby's notes indicate Cheney got his information about Plame from then-CIA director George Tenet, according to the Times. The notes did not show Cheney knew the name of Wilson's wife, but they showed Cheney told Libby she was employed by the CIA and may have helped arrange Wilson's Niger trip.
A Republican source with ties to Cheney said there was nothing illegal about Cheney and Libby discussing Wilson and his wife since they have security clearances.
Lefkowitz said Monday was the first time he had been questioned by the FBI in connection with his neighbor. The agents told him they were talking to other neighbors as well.