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Time Reporter Testifies About Contacts With Rove
Still, much of the leak probe remains a mystery to those outside the office of Fitzgerald, who is leading the investigation and divulging little.
It is a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, for a federal official to intentionally disclose the identity of a covert agent.
The controversy began when former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, Plame's husband, went to Niger in February 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was trying to purchase materials for the production of nuclear weapons. He found the claims to be largely unfounded. Seventeen months later, after Wilson leveled charges that the administration manipulated evidence in making the case for war on Iraq, news reports cited administration officials saying his charges were not credible because the Niger report was tainted by nepotism, because he was sent by Plame.
Several people familiar with the investigation said they expect Fitzgerald to indict, or at least force a plea agreement with, at least one individual for leaking Plame's name to conservative columnist Robert D. Novak in July 2003.
Randall D. Eliason, former public corruption chief at the U.S. Attorney's Office here, said Fitzgerald likely has evidence of serious wrongdoing, or he would not have gone this far.
"Right now, it's more political damage than legal damage" for the White House, Eliason said. "But it's reasonable to speculate he wouldn't go to the Supreme Court on reporters' privilege unless he had something pretty serious. You don't subpoena reporters and throw them in jail lightly. Fitzgerald is not some type of bomb-thrower."
An official could face perjury charges for misleading the special counsel while testifying under oath. If so, this would become a familiar case of Washington officials getting in trouble for a coverup rather than the original misdeed.
"If you look at past scandals, people are most often indicted for making false statements to federal investigators or false statements to the grand jury," said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and criminal lawyer. "Even a brief conversation can become an obstruction charge."
Fitzgerald could have evidence, for instance, that Rove or other officials encouraged someone to tell a coverup story to explain their conversations about Plame, which could lead to a charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice. But legal experts noted these cases are often difficult to prove.
Finally, there could be evidence of the crime that Fitzgerald first set out to investigate, a violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Under a very detailed list of conditions, if Rove or other government officials revealed the identity of Plame to the media while knowing she was a covert agent, they could face felony charges and up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Victoria Toensing, who helped write the act, has said there is likely no such evidence in this case, because the statute was designed to have a high standard and requires proof of intent to harm national security.