If Osama bin Laden ever stands trial, there's a prosecutor in Chicago waiting to face him down. As a driven young lawyer in the 1990s, Patrick J. Fitzgerald built the first criminal indictment against the man who would become the world's most hunted terrorist. Both men have moved on, you might say, but Fitzgerald still imagines that fantasy date before a judge.
"If you're a prosecutor, you'd be insane if you didn't want to go do that," Fitzgerald says in the well-appointed conference room of the U.S. attorney's office here. "If there was a courtroom and they said someone has to stand up and try him, would I hesitate to volunteer? No. I'm not saying I'd be the best person to try him at that point, but I'd be lying if I told you I wouldn't be interested."
"If you're not zealous, you shouldn't have the job," says U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, whose subpoenas of reporters have prompted complaints.
(John Gress For The Washington Post)
A solidly built former rugby player who enjoyed getting muddy and bloody well into his twenties, Fitzgerald is nothing but confident in his own skin. Just as he does not fear bin Laden, he seems to fret little that he is now tangling simultaneously with the Bush White House and the New York Times, two of the nation's most powerful and privileged institutions.
Fitzgerald, 44, is the special prosecutor investigating the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak. The gifted son of an Irish doorman makes no bones about challenging the establishment. His office is also prosecuting former Illinois governor George Ryan and loyal associates of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on influence-peddling and corruption charges.
He sees his task as getting to the bottom of things in ways as creative as the law allows. The law doesn't say you can't question a sitting president about his contacts or an investigative reporter about confidential sources. So Fitzgerald has done both, including quizzing Bush for more than an hour in the White House last June. His assiduous demands for answers from journalists alarms critics who believe he has created the greatest confrontation between the government and the press in a generation.
The Times editorial page has hammered Fitzgerald, saying that "in his zeal to compel reporters to disclose their sources, Mr. Fitzgerald lost sight of the bigger picture." His demand that Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper be forced to testify prompted the paper to call the case "a major assault" on relationships between reporters and their secret sources, the very essence of reporting on the abuse of power.
Fitzgerald is too politic to talk back, at least before he has wrapped up the case. A federal appeals panel in Washington is due to rule any day on whether the reporters must testify, and his work on the leak investigation is not done. But he appears to wonder what the fuss is all about. He says freely that he is zealous, a term he translates as passion within limits.
James B. Comey, deputy attorney general and unofficial president-for-life of the Pat Fitzgerald Booster Club, says no high-profile prosecutor ever provided less evidence that he was "doing something wacky."
"What's been interesting is seeing the media accounts and the columnists portray him as some sort of runaway prosecutor. That makes me smile," says Comey, who is largely responsible for Fitzgerald getting the Plame assignment. "Because there is no prosecutor who is less of a runaway than this guy."
Fitzgerald frequently makes crime-fighting headlines in Chicago, where he took over the U.S. attorney's office just 10 days before 9/11. What's surprising is that he got the job at all. A New Yorker born and bred, Fitzgerald knew hardly a soul in Chicago, which was precisely the idea. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation) was looking for an outsider to battle the state's notoriously corrupt political apparatus.
The recently retired Illinois Republican tells a story about back in Al Capone's day, when Col. Robert McCormick, the imperious publisher of the Chicago Tribune, called FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and demanded that he send someone to Chicago who could not be bought.
Hoover sent the untouchable Eliot Ness.
Now, as then, the U.S. attorney's job has the gloss of patronage. The late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley used to say the U.S. attorney in Chicago is one of the three most important people in the state, and Peter Fitzgerald said he wanted "someone who couldn't be influenced either to prosecute someone unfairly or protect someone from being prosecuted unjustly."