CIA Leak Case Heats Up Hazy Summer

ByJohn Cochran

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2006 — -- Thermometers have finally hit the 90's, and Washington is getting the lazy, sultry look that comes as May dissolves into June.

We Washingtonians tend to slow down, but the news doesn't. And it won't this summer either, with a decision expected from Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald that will finally determine whether a top White House aide will face serious federal charges in the CIA leak case.

Those old enough to remember Watergate will recall the fiercely hot summer of '74, when scandal revelations brought down Richard Nixon's presidency.

Now Washington waits to see what this summer holds for the Bush White House. No one believes the scandal will approach the grand scale of Watergate, but when it hits it will certainly qualify as breaking news.

The Fitzgerald investigation has already produced the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

Will there be more indictments? Will President Bush's top political aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, escape indictment and continue plotting strategy for Republicans to maintain control of Congress? Or will Rove be indicted and, as Libby did, turn in his White House pass?

Many in Washington who are in a position to know believed we would have an answer by now. But Fitzgerald never set a deadline, so he doesn't have to meet one.

Fitzgerald, so we are told, is carefully, very carefully, sifting through evidence of what happened three years ago when Rove spoke to two reporters about undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame.

Rove appeared five times before the grand jury that heard evidence in the case. He said he did not consciously mislead the grand jury when he failed to disclose a conversation with Time Magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. Rove said it was simply a faulty memory that caused him not to reveal his conversation about Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a caustic critic of President Bush who accused the president of using faulty intelligence to help justify the Iraq War.

Fitzgerald has assembled evidence that Rove was active during that period in July 2003 in defending the president's reasons for going to war.

But Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said: "It does not follow that he [Rove] was necessarily involved in some effort to discredit Wilson personally. Nor does it prove that there was even an effort to disclose Plame's identity in order to punish Wilson."

Plame's outing as a CIA officer was what led to Fitzgerald's investigation. He set out to discover whether administration officials knowingly revealed Plame's connection to the CIA.

It is unclear whether that would actually have been a crime, and in fact, no one has been accused by the special prosecutor of doing that.

Libby was indicted on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice. In other words, Libby is charged with covering up something that may or may not be a crime.

It appears that Fitzgerald is considering similar charges against Rove. If anyone other than Rove is in danger of indictment, we don't know about it.

Rove's fate is an obsessive topic in Washington because he has been such an important player in GOP electoral victories, not just for George Bush but for Republicans on Capitol Hill as well. Even Democrats acknowledge Rove is a grand master at political chess.

It would be a stunning blow to Republicans if his talents are not available this fall, when Democrats will challenge them for control of both Houses of Congress. And even though Rove recently lost some of his responsibilities at the White House, the president still relies heavily on him for political advice.

Clearly, this is not an easy call for Fitzgerald. If it had been, Rove would already be cleared or indicted.

Past forecasts of a timetable for Fitzgerald's decision have proved wrong. What is the new forecast? We asked a lawyer who was at one time involved in the case and who does not want to make predictions with his name attached.

"Soon," he said, "Fitzgerald can't delay this much longer."

What does soon mean, we asked.

"Oh," he said, "one hot day when you least expect it."

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