Washington is abuzz with talk about what Karl Rove and "Scooter" Libby told a grand jury, who they told about Valerie Plame, who told them, whether they told the truth, and whether a prosecutor can prove that they did not tell the truth.
And virtually every bit of information, confirmed and alleged, comes from unnamed sources -- ironically, in an investigation of who anonymously outed a CIA operative -- who are trying to shape public understanding of a complicated narrative to someone's advantage.
The result is that after two years of near-total secrecy about the CIA leak investigation, a steady stream of sometimes-conflicting information is now flowing, invariably attributed to "lawyers close to the case" or similarly opaque sources.
As Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald nears a decision on whether to seek indictments of top White House officials, lawyers involved in the inquiry are using the news media to float bits of evidence or interpretations that are favorable to their high-level clients. The maneuvering makes clear that these lawyers are fighting a two-front war, trying simultaneously to avert criminal charges while seeking acquittal in the court of public opinion.
The rush of disclosures in the closing days of an investigation is a time-tested ritual of Washington scandals, and each time the questions are the same: Who leaked and for what reason?
The most dramatic example came Tuesday, when unnamed lawyers told the New York Times that Vice President Cheney had told Libby, his chief of staff, that Plame was a CIA operative weeks before her identity became public in 2003. The account, which referred to notes of a conversation between Cheney and Libby, was the first time the vice president has been tied to a White House effort to learn about Plame, the wife of an administration critic -- and it may have been leaked to cushion the blow of that disclosure.
"At the end of an investigation where prosecutors are about to make decisions, it's a bit unseemly," said Joseph E. diGenova, a former U.S. attorney. "It has a macabre, manipulative quality about it that seems mindless. It seems like last-minute gasping. It's kind of embarrassing to watch as a lawyer. Whatever benefit there is will be very short-lived because it's too late to affect the outcome."
Lanny J. Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer, said such leaks are "a dangerous damage-control practice" authorized by officials "to distance themselves from whoever they think is in trouble by putting out information that is partially true."
The drumbeat of incremental disclosures also reflects a media culture in which news organizations feel compelled to publish something every day on an investigation that could shake the White House, even though little hard information is available and Fitzgerald appears to be running a leak-free operation. Newspaper reporters have worked late night after night, trying to piece together scraps or match rivals' scoops.
Defense lawyers sometimes provide reporters information on a not-for-attribution basis to counter leaks from law enforcement officials, as often happened during independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 1998 investigation of President Bill Clinton. Sometimes they are trying to get the bad news out themselves before someone else does it for them. And sometimes it is a way of communicating indirectly with other possible witnesses in the case.
On the morning that Clinton was to testify before a grand jury, the Times reported that "senior advisers" had "secured his agreement" to acknowledge "an inappropriate physical relationship" with Monica S. Lewinsky. The pace of leaks in the Plame case has been quickening. In early July, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff disclosed the contents of e-mails that Time's Matthew Cooper had written about his conversations about Plame with senior presidential adviser Rove, his previously confidential source.
On July 22, Bloomberg News cited "people familiar with the case" in reporting that Libby had testified that he learned about Plame from NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert, which conflicts with Russert's statement that he told a grand jury he did not know Plame's name and did not tell Libby about her. The story also said Rove had testified that he first learned Plame's name from columnist Robert D. Novak. On Oct. 6, the Times, The Washington Post and other news organizations quoted unnamed lawyers as saying that Rove had been summoned to the grand jury for a fourth time.
On Oct. 19, the Associated Press reported that Rove had testified that Libby may have told him that Plame worked for the CIA, before her identity was revealed by Novak. The Post quoted "a source familiar with Rove's account" about the same information the next day.
On Oct. 21, the Los Angeles Times quoted "former White House aides" as saying that Libby was angry about criticism from Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, began monitoring his television appearances and urged a public campaign against him.
The problem for journalists is that these accounts sometimes conflict. Tuesday's New York Times story seemed to undercut Libby's earlier account by naming Cheney as his original source of information about Plame.
Stanley M. Brand, a former House counsel, said the leaking lawyers "get caught up in the flattery of being solicited by the press and forget what their job is. It's a very seductive atmosphere." Asked about the public relations battle, Brand said: "Who cares? The only guy who matters is Fitzgerald." As a potential defendant, "all I care about is whether he charges me or not."