President Bush has consulted an outside lawyer about representing him if he is questioned as part of the grand jury investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's identity, administration officials said yesterday.
The officials said Bush is poised to hire Jim Sharp of Washington, a former assistant U.S. attorney who heads his own firm, if prosecutors or FBI agents want to interview the president about the Valerie Plame case or if he is called by a federal grand jury investigating the matter.
Plame's undercover status was revealed when her name appeared in a newspaper column by Robert D. Novak last July 14 that attributed the information to "two senior administration officials." In February 2002, the CIA sent Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, to investigate assertions that Iraq had attempted to buy nuclear material in Niger, claims that he discredited. Wilson later became a leading critic of the White House's case for invading Iraq and has suggested that his wife's identity was leaked to discourage others from questioning the administration.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush "has had discussions" with Sharp about representing him in connection with the case.
"In the event he needs his advice, the president would probably retain him," McClellan said. "The president has been very clear in saying that he wants the White House to cooperate fully, and that would include himself."
McClellan, repeating the White House position about the case, added: "No one wants to get to the bottom of this more than the president. Leaking of classified information is a very serious matter." McClellan would say only that the discussions between Bush and Sharp occurred "recently."
Bush's consultation was first reported yesterday by CBS News.
The White House counsel's office advises the president in his official capacity, but presidents can retain outside lawyers to represent their personal interests.
The Justice Department began an investigation in October into whether administration officials had illegally leaked Plame's identity. Under U.S. law, the disclosure could be a crime if the person knew Plame was undercover and revealed that information intentionally.
In December, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft recused himself from the politically sensitive case and appointed U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Chicago as a special prosecutor.
The grand jury has questioned several current and former aides to Bush and Vice President Cheney, including McClellan. In May, the grand jury subpoenaed Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," and Time reporter Matthew Cooper, and Fitzgerald sought voluntary interviews with two reporters for The Washington Post.
Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney who worked with Sharp as a young prosecutor, said Sharp is known for his litigation skills. He called Sharp "a brilliant tactician who is very persuasive" and said he is "folksy like a fox."
DiGenova said any possible interest by prosecutors in Bush could suggest that they are nearing the end of the investigation. "The tree of the investigation starts at the bottom and works up, and now they're nearing the top," he said. "They can ask him about conversations they may have been told about and can ask him, 'Did this person admit anything to you?' "
Wilson wrote in a memoir published in April, "The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity," that journalists told him more than once that "the White House was actively promoting the leak of my wife's name and employment."
Wilson suggested publicly that Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, was Novak's source but later backed off that accusation. In the book, Wilson wrote that "at a minimum, Rove had engaged in unethical behavior -- by pushing the disclosure of Valerie's status."
Democrats accused Bush of chilling the investigation when he said in October: "I don't know if we're going to find out the senior administration official. Now, this is a large administration, and there's a lot of senior officials." But he went on to say, "I want to know the truth."
Bush was asked again about the case on New Year's Day in Texas, when he said: "I'm not involved with the investigation in any way, shape or form. I've told the members of the White House to totally cooperate. I think you'll find that there has been total cooperation."