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Questions Remain on the Leaker and the Law

"I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this," McClellan said. "And that's where it stands." Reporters pressed McClellan to clarify that statement but he held to the words in his first answer until one reporter asked, "They were not involved in what?" To which he replied, "The leaking of classified information."

That left open the other question that comes into play in this episode, which is the degree to which White House officials were engaged two summers ago in a vigorous effort to discredit Wilson's accusations by discrediting Wilson himself. That in itself may not be a crime, nor would such tactics be unique to the Bush White House, given the accepted rules of political combat employed by participants in both major political parties.

Rove told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Wilson's wife was "fair game," according to an October 2003 report in Newsweek. At a minimum Fitzgerald could turn up embarrassing information that may yet become public about how the Bush White House operates.

Although the president has encouraged full cooperation with the special prosecutor, administration officials have not appeared eager to explain fully their roles in the Wilson matter. A number of them have signed waivers of confidentiality freeing reporters with whom they have spoken from maintaining confidentiality, although Cooper and others have said they did not regard that waiver as specific enough. In other cases, administration officials have given reporters specific waivers.

But in some of those cases, officials have given the green light for reporters to testify to the grand jury in exchange for a pledge from the reporter not to reveal publicly the identity of the source or the details of the conversations.

Fitzgerald long has made a distinction in his investigation between conversations held before Novak's column was publicly available (it was moved to his newspaper clients on July 11, 2003) and after, on the assumption that once Plame's name was in the public domain, there was no criminal liability for administration officials to discuss it. Which may be one reason it could be difficult to obtain indictments. After almost two years, Fitzgerald finds only one person in jail as a result of his inquiry -- a reporter who never wrote an article about the leak.

The White House is preparing for a potential battle with the Democrats over a Supreme Court nominee, a conflict with great consequences and in which advocates on both sides appear ready to employ all means available to promote or discredit a nominee.

White House officials make no secret that they think Democrats went beyond the boundaries to discredit the reputations of some of their nominees to the appellate courts. Now into that maelstrom could come discomforting revelations about what top White House officials may have done to discredit Wilson by questioning his motives, his wife's role in the trip to Niger and his veracity.

Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.

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