The White House, District Court officials and two potential targets of the CIA leak investigation were making preparations yesterday for the possible announcement of indictments by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald today, according to several sources familiar with the investigation.
Two sources said I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was shopping for a white-collar criminal lawyer amid expectations of those close to the case that he might be indicted for providing false statements or other charges.
At the same time, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove began assembling a public relations team in the event that he is indicted. The New York Times reported last night that Rove would not be charged today but would remain under investigation.
At the White House, aides scrambled to put the finishing touches on a political strategy to respond to the fallout from any criminal charges, including the likelihood of staff changes. A Republican consultant with close White House ties said Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had canceled at least two trips in the past week and had met with Bush over the weekend to focus on how to react to the grand jury's decisions.
"These will be very, very dark days for the White House," the consultant quoted Card as saying.
At the U.S. courthouse here, where Fitzgerald will meet with the grand jury for what is expected to be the final time, there was a rush of activity. Court staff made preparations to quickly produce scores of copies of documents for waiting reporters.
Still, the penultimate day of the 22-month probe ended with the same mystery that has kept much of Washington, including some of the possible targets and lawyers in the case, on edge about Fitzgerald's plans.
The special counsel set out in late 2003 to investigate whether anyone in the Bush administration illegally disclosed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame as part of an effort to discredit her husband, outspoken Iraq war critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
But officials close to Rove and Libby said the two high-level aides seem more concerned about being charged with making false statements to the grand jury, an area in which Fitzgerald has shown great interest as the case comes to a close. People close to Rove said the senior Bush strategist and his legal team have worked assiduously in the past week to convince Fitzgerald that Rove did not mislead the grand jury.
Fitzgerald has a number of legal options. They range from concluding that no one broke the law, to charging a number of government officials with a conspiracy to unmask Plame or obstruct justice during the investigation. But it was hard to find anyone involved in the case yesterday who believed Fitzgerald will not indict someone today.
It was unclear yesterday whether Fitzgerald had issued formal letters notifying anyone that he or she was a target of the investigation. However, that step might not be necessary for Libby or Rove, who previously have been warned verbally that they face possible legal jeopardy.
Though there was speculation among lawyers for witnesses in the case that Fitzgerald could choose to empanel a new grand jury and extend his investigation, two legal sources said he is eager to not take that route and would prefer to wrap up the case today.
Anticipating the worst, White House aides juggled two of the most damaging events of the Bush presidency yesterday: the withdrawal of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court and the conclusion of the leak probe. Two top aides said they were given no indication by Bush, Cheney, Rove or Libby about charges, complicating efforts to firm up a political plan. The White House, one aide said, is "ready for anything."
The consultant who spoke with Card said Bush should bring in several people of stature to replace weary veteran staffers who work there now -- even if Rove survives. Rove himself was making contingency plans, which included having allies begin to assemble a legal and political team in case he is indicted.
Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for the Justice Department, would be part of the public relations defense team, according to a person familiar with the plan. Corallo is no stranger to high-profile defenses. He was spokesman for former representative Bob Livingston (R-La.), who was forced to step aside as the incoming speaker of the House in 1998 after admitting an extramarital affair.
Two sources said Libby was searching for a criminal defense attorney, an effort that could be nothing more than a precaution or preparations for what might lie ahead, according to one person close to him. His current lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, specializes in intellectual property, criminal and antitrust law, according to a national legal directory.
Both Libby and Rove attended regular White House strategy sessions yesterday, betraying no sense of whether they anticipate charges.
Even if the outcome is not as bad as some expect, two administration aides said they are prepared for months of attacks over the leak of Plame's name and the broader justification for the Iraq war.
Rove has told friends he is most concerned about being charged with providing false statements because he did not initially tell the grand jury about a conversation he had with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about Plame and her CIA employment before her identity was publicly disclosed.
Libby, who has emerged as a main focus of the investigation, also faces possible legal exposure for providing false statements, according to lawyers in the case.
Libby could face charges if the grand jury agrees there is probable cause he intentionally gave shifting accounts of how he learned about Plame or the details of his conversations with reporters about Plame. Libby, a major administration supporter of the war with Iraq, has testified that he believed he learned about Plame from reporters, and named Tim Russert of NBC as a person who mentioned Plame to him, according to a source familiar with his account.
Russert has said in a public statement that he did not name Plame to anyone. Also, as the New York Times reported this week, Libby's notes of a June 12 meeting with Cheney indicate that he learned of Plame's name and role in the CIA from Cheney.
Libby has testified that he did not identify Plame by name to reporters or discuss her covert status with them. But New York Times reporter Judith Miller has testified that she believed she first learned of Plame's CIA job from Libby, when the two spoke on June 23, 2003. Miller said she and Libby discussed Plame again in a meeting on July 8, 2003, and in a phone conversation a few days later, on July 12.
Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.