The special prosecutor investigating whether Bush administration officials illegally revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative says he finished his investigation months ago, except for questioning two reporters who have refused to testify.
The information in a March 22 court filing by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald suggests that syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who first published the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame, has already spoken to investigators about his sources for that report, according to legal experts. Novak, whose July 2003 column sparked the investigation, and his attorney have refused to comment on whether he was questioned.
Legal experts and sources close to the case also speculated yesterday that Fitzgerald is not likely to seek an indictment for the crime he originally set out to investigate: whether a government official knowingly exposed a covert officer. The sources, who asked not to be named because the matter is the subject of a grand jury investigation, said Fitzgerald may instead seek to charge a government official with committing perjury by giving conflicting information to prosecutors.
Fitzgerald's filing was part of his effort to persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that he needs the testimony of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper to wrap up his investigation.
The two reporters and their news organizations have refused to discuss their confidential sources with prosecutors. They appealed to the full court after a three-judge panel ruled last month that Miller and Cooper should be held in contempt and face possible jail unless they agree to be questioned before a grand jury.
In the court documents, Fitzgerald said that by October 2004, "the factual investigation -- other than the testimony of Miller and Cooper . . . was for all practical purposes complete."
That special prosecutor's characterization of his efforts led to indignation among press advocates who learned of the filing yesterday. They said it bolsters their suspicion that Fitzgerald has put two journalists in jeopardy of incarceration though he may not have sufficient evidence to indict someone for the felony he was appointed to investigate.
Lucy Dalglish, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the special counsel's case "disturbing."
"Boy, I tell you if those two reporters go to jail and there was nothing to this entire investigation, that will be an outrage," Dalglish said. Floyd Abrams, the First Amendment attorney who represents Miller and Cooper, said he has long worried that the special prosecutor has used extreme measures to get reporters to talk and yet may not have evidence of a serious crime.
Proving that the leak is a felony requires showing substantial evidence that the government official revealed the operative's name or likeness while knowing that the administration was working to keep it concealed.
Plame's identity was revealed in Novak's column after a report by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson had published an opinion column in the New York Times that criticized the Bush administration for relying on faulty intelligence to make the case for going to war with Iraq. Wilson, who had led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was trying to buy enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, reported that the allegations were probably baseless.
Novak's column challenged Wilson's assertions, and reported that two anonymous senior administration sources told him that Wilson was chosen to lead the mission because Plame had suggested him for the job. Lawyers and experts familiar with the case said it is unthinkable that Fitzgerald would not interview Novak.
"This would lead me to probably conclude that Mr. Novak testified and did not provide nearly the treasure trove that Fitzgerald expected," Dalglish said.