A Nonpartisan Reputation at Stake

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

When the jury in I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's perjury trial returns with its verdict, its decision also will intensify the debate over whether Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald should have brought the case in the first place.

For Fitzgerald, who has led the CIA leak investigation for more than three years, an acquittal for Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff would be a blow to a reputation as a nonpartisan prosecutor with a record of high-profile successes. Some say it would vindicate critics who think Fitzgerald went too far by charging Libby with perjury when no one was indicted for the original offense investigated, the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name.

"The stakes are enormously high," said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense lawyer. If Fitzgerald loses this case, Mintz said, "some will say he lost his way in his search for truth, just another case of a prosecutor who sets off and thinks they can't come back unless they have a prosecution, no matter how trivial."

But several lawyers monitoring the trial as spectators say Fitzgerald has presented a compelling case that the government had a duty to bring.

A federal court jury began deliberating Wednesday about whether Libby intentionally lied about his conversations with reporters and his role in disclosing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in the summer of 2003.

Fitzgerald's investigation shined a spotlight on Cheney's strong interest in rebutting a war critic, the White House's case for war with Iraq, the conduct of top officials and the Washington press corps.

Fitzgerald, 46, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed special counsel in 2003, heralded as an impartial prosecutor with "a virtually unblemished reputation," Mintz said. Those were important qualities in an investigation enmeshed in partisan politics.

His previous victories include convicting Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case and compiling the first criminal indictment against Osama bin Laden. But in 2003 he was forced to drop key terrorism counts against the leader of a Muslim charity, Enaam Arnaout, who was convicted of related crimes and imprisoned.

Fitzgerald's motives and credentials were challenged when his investigation homed in on top Bush administration officials, including senior White House adviser Karl Rove, as well as the Washington press corps. In a showdown with the New York Times, Fitzgerald went to the Supreme Court to force reporters to divulge their confidential conversations with government sources.

In October 2005, nearly two years after the investigation began, Fitzgerald charged Libby, 56, with making false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice -- but did not accuse anyone of intentionally blowing Plame's cover. He said Libby's lies made it impossible to know whether he had intended to commit that crime.

Fitzgerald alleged that Libby lied about sharing information about Plame with reporters and had been part of a campaign to discredit Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. The CIA sent Wilson to Niger in 2002 to investigate allegations that Iraq was attempting to obtain nuclear material there. Wilson found the reports groundless and in 2003 publicly accused President Bush of twisting his report's conclusions to help justify the war.

Former senator Fred Thompson said that win or lose, Fitzgerald will be judged as a prosecutor run amok who chased petty political crimes "to the ends of the Earth."

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