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Role of Rove, Libby in CIA Leak Case Clearer

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Conspiracy cases are viewed by criminal prosecutors as simpler to bring than more straightforward criminal charges, but also trickier to sell to juries. "That would arguably be a close call for a prosecutor, but it could be tried," a veteran Washington criminal attorney with longtime experience in national security cases said yesterday.

Other lawyers in the case surmise Fitzgerald does not have evidence of any crime at all and put Miller in jail simply to get her testimony and finalize the investigation. "Even assuming . . . that somebody decided to answer back a critic, that is politics, not criminal behavior," said one lawyer in the case. This lawyer said the most benign outcome would be Fitzgerald announcing that he completed a thorough investigation, concluded no crime was committed and would not issue a report.

The campaign to discredit Wilson's accusations came at a critical moment in the Bush presidency. It occurred a few months after the United States invaded Iraq and at a time when Bush, Cheney and the entire administration were under extraordinary pressure to back up their prewar allegations that Iraq had large stockpiles of chemical weapons and was working on a nuclear weapons program.

The Niger claim was central to the White House's rationale for war, and Wilson was on a one-man crusade to disprove it. Early on, his actions caught the eye of the vice president's office, which was often the emotional and intellectual force pushing the United States to war based on fears of potential weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Cheney and Libby were intimately involved in building the case for the war, which included warnings that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing nuclear weapons.

Cheney's staff was looking into Wilson as early as May 2003, nearly two months before columnist Robert D. Novak identified Wilson's wife as a CIA operative, according to administration sources familiar with the effort. What stirred the interest of the vice president's office was a May 6 New York Times column by Nicholas D. Kristof in which the mission to Niger was described without using Wilson's name. Kristof's column said Cheney had authorized the trip.

According to former senior CIA officials, the vice president's office pressed the CIA to find out how the trip was arranged, because Cheney did not know that a query he made much earlier to a CIA briefer about a report alleging Iraq was seeking Niger uranium had triggered Wilson's trip. "They were very uptight about the vice president being tagged that way," a former senior CIA official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. "They asked questions that set [off] a chain of inquiries."

By early June, several weeks before Libby is said to have known Plame's name, the State Department had prepared a memo on the Niger case that contained information on Plame in a section marked "(S)" for secret. Around that time, Libby knew about the trip's origins, though in an interview with The Washington Post at the time, he did not mention any role played by Wilson's wife.

By July 12, however, both Rove and Libby and perhaps other senior White House officials knew about Wilson's wife's position at the CIA and, according to lawyers familiar with testimony in the probe, used that information with reporters to undermine the significance of Wilson's trip.

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.


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