Weeks after he took over the investigation 22 months ago into the unauthorized disclosure of a CIA operative's identity, special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald got authority from the Justice Department to expand his inquiry to include any criminal attempts to interfere with his probe, according to a letter posted Friday on Fitzgerald's new Web site.
Fitzgerald is nearing a decision on whether he will prosecute anyone when the federal grand jury term ends Friday. The letter specified that he could investigate and prosecute "perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and intimidation of witnesses."
According to a lawyer familiar with the case, the current speculation about such charges eventually arising appeared to have occurred to Fitzgerald in the first months of his inquiry.
In a letter dated Feb. 6, 2004, then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey said that he was clarifying, "at your [Fitzgerald's] request," the added authority to investigate and prosecute "crimes committed with intent to interfere with your investigation." Fitzgerald's appointment as special counsel on Dec. 30, 2003, after then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft recused himself, gave him specific authority to investigate "the alleged unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee's identity," according to another letter from Comey posted on the Web site.
"The fact that he [Fitzgerald] asked for authority that he probably already had, but wanted spelled out, makes it arguable that he had run into something rather quickly," Washington lawyer Plato Cacheris said yesterday.
The investigation was triggered by a July 14, 2003, syndicated column by Robert D. Novak in which he identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had been sent to Niger to check whether Iraq was trying to get uranium from that country. Novak wrote that two senior administration officials had suggested that Wilson's wife had proposed him for the trip.
After Novak's column appeared, the CIA notified the Justice Department that publication of Plame's name and CIA employment was an unauthorized leak of classified information. The CIA then looked into whether the disclosure had caused damage to Plame and to people familiar with Plame and her job at the agency. The CIA's report went to the Justice Department, which determined in late September 2003 that a criminal investigation of the leak should be initiated.
Ashcroft recused himself because the inquiry would focus on White House personnel. Comey then named Fitzgerald, a highly regarded prosecutor and the U.S. attorney in northern Illinois, as special counsel.
From the start, the inquiry focused on a potential violation of a federal statute that prohibits the disclosure of the name of a covert CIA operative. Then the inquiry began looking at whether a conspiracy developed within the top levels of the Bush White House to leak Plame's name to discredit Wilson because of his statements criticizing the administration's use of intelligence in the buildup to the war in Iraq.
The possibility of perjury or obstruction charges emerged more recently, after the publication of reports on the testimony of journalists who said they were told about Plame either by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove or by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.