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Libby May Have Tried to Mask Cheney's Role

Libby is the only White House official charged in the case. Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff and top political adviser, remains under investigation for providing misleading statements about his role in the leaking of Plame's identity, and people close to the case said he could still be charged. A final decision is expected soon on Rove's fate.

William Jeffress Jr., one of Libby's lawyers, declined to comment on the case. So did Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn.

But the emerging case against Libby is bringing more about Fitzgerald's investigation into public view. In October 2003, agents interviewed several administration officials, who described conversations they had with Libby about Plame in June and early July of 2003. Cumulatively during Fitzgerald's probe, four officials said they mentioned Plame to Libby, investigators found; three others said Libby mentioned her to them.

This testimony makes the story Libby offered during his first FBI interview look suspicious. He said he believed that he first learned about Plame on July 10 or July 11, 2003, in a conversation with Russert. Libby said he was surprised to learn of Plame's connection to Wilson. To Fitzgerald's team, Libby did not seek to deny that he had learned about the Plame link from Cheney -- as revealed by Libby's own notes -- but simply said it had slipped his mind that the vice president was an earlier source of the information than Russert, lawyers familiar with the case said.

Even early in the investigation, two key people were publicly known at the time to have been interviewed by the FBI: Ari Fleischer, then-White House press secretary, and Catherine Martin, a Cheney press aide. Martin had learned about Plame's employment at the CIA from another senior government official, the indictment says, and told Libby sometime in late June or the first week of July. Fleischer reportedly told investigators that, at a lunch on Monday, July 7, Libby told him that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and confided that the information was not widely known.

Fitzgerald, in announcing the indictment two weeks ago, called attention to this conversation with Fleischer to show how improbable he regarded Libby's account: "What's important about that is that Mr. Libby . . . was telling Mr. Fleischer something on Monday that he claims to have learned on Thursday."

Libby's defense must also reckon with his own notes. Lawyers familiar with the case said in general his notes do not recount the details of conversations and do not specifically contradict his account to investigators. Usually the notes explain with whom he met each day. One remarkable exception was when he chronicled a meeting with his boss on or about June 12, in which Libby wrote that Cheney told him that he learned from the CIA that Wilson's wife worked at the agency.

But when Libby was called to answer Fitzgerald's questions under oath before the grand jury on March 5 and again on March 24, 2004, he stuck to the story he had given in October. He repeated that he believed he had learned the information from a reporter and had forgotten Cheney had told him about Plame. He explained that he had not thought the material was classified because reporters knew it. But Fitzgerald pressed Libby -- and not so subtly raised the specter of a coverup. "And let me ask you this directly," Fitzgerald said. "Did the fact that you knew that the law could . . . turn on where you learned the information from affect your account for the FBI -- when you told them that you were telling reporters Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but your source was a reporter rather than the vice president?" Libby denied it: "No, it's a fact. It was a fact, that's what I told the reporters."

After lengthy court battles over journalists' duty to testify in the case -- including several contempt citations by a trial court judge, appeals to the Supreme Court and one reporter's jailing -- Fitzgerald got all the reporters' testimony that he had sought. Russert, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller of the New York Times all testified about their conversations with Libby. All contradicted Libby.

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