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An 'untouchable' force

Veteran prosecutor wades into charged waters in CIA leak case

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Peter Fitzgerald
Chicago (Illinois)
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

(CNN) -- Having earned acclaim in legal circles for targeting the likes of Osama bin Laden and mafia figure John Gambino, Patrick Fitzgerald may soon garner mainstream attention if his probe into the leaked identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame ensnares top Bush administration officials.

The admirers of the Chicago, Illinois-based U.S. attorney laud his diligence, determination and tenacity in going after criminals, no matter how powerful they might be.

For now, it's Fitzgerald who has the power.

In Washington, the buzz is that the reticent prosecutor may soon seek indictments of one or more White House officials, with deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and also a presidential adviser, possible targets.

The intense political spotlight, powerful players, as well as national security and intelligence implications complicate the case.

When Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Comey appointed Fitzgerald to be special counsel on December 30, 2003, Comey expressed confidence that Fitzgerald had the legal skills, professional background and personal integrity to excel.

"He is the perfect man for the job," said Comey, who tapped Fitzgerald after then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself. "He is an absolutely apolitical career prosecutor."

Enemies and admirers abound

Perhaps not surprisingly for a veteran prosecutor, Fitzgerald has amassed plenty of enemies who do not share Comey's admiration.

International terrorists, organized crime figures and drug dealers have been frequent foes in court. Fitzgerald also has tangled with politicians -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- especially since becoming U.S. attorney for northern Illinois.

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, for one, lashed out at a corruption investigation led by Fitzgerald.

"The federal government has torn apart my personal life with the intrusive and overbearing investigation," Ryan said after being indicted on 22 charges in December 2003.

His most recent adversaries: several journalists whom he compelled to reveal names of the people who provided sensitive (and possibly illegal) details about Plame's CIA background.

An editorial in The New York Times, whose reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to disclose her source, deemed the prosecutor's actions a "major assault on the confidential relationship between journalists and their sources."

A few months later, the newspaper claimed Fitzgerald "exhibited neither reverence nor cautious circumspection."

But admirers and detractors tend to agree: Fitzgerald is consistently a relentless, intense and zealous prosecutor -- a characteristic apparent, to date, in his CIA leak investigation.

And, no doubt, he has been successful. At 45, he has amassed an accomplished resume tackling terrorism, corruption and crime as a federal prosecutor based in New York and Chicago.

Mobsters and terrorists

The son of Irish immigrants, Fitzgerald grew up in the Flatbush area of New York City. A scholarship recipient at Regis High School, he graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, majoring in mathematics and economics and being elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Fitzgerald graduated from Harvard Law School and spent three years as a lawyer at the New York City law firm Christy & Viener before joining the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan in 1988. He has been a federal prosecutor ever since.

After initial success in drug trafficking cases, the assistant U.S. attorney scored his biggest victory yet in 1993 when he and another lawyer successfully prosecuted organized crime boss John Gambino.

In December 1995, Fitzgerald became co-chief of his office's Organized Crime-Terrorism Unit, signaling his expertise on national security issues.

Those convicted under Fitzgerald's watch include Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, found guilty for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center blast.

U.S. v. Osama bin Laden later became the central case in his unit's effort, targeting 23 defendants for domestic and international crimes committed against Americans.

Fitzgerald, for example, led the prosecution of four men found guilty of masterminding the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Seen as nonpartisan -- for now

A month and a half before those four were sentenced to life in prison -- and 10 days before the September 11, 2001, attacks -- Bush promoted Fitzgerald to U.S. attorney for northern Illinois.

The appointment came at the urging of then-Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (no relation) of Illinois, who sought a strong-willed, successful, outside federal law enforcement force in Chicago, a city long associated with political corruption.

Supporters portray the U.S. attorney as tough and nonpartisan -- an "untouchable" in the mold of Eliot Ness, the federal agent who went after mobster Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s and '30s.

That reputation has served Fitzgerald well in polarized Washington, where he currently commands bipartisan respect for his diligence, focus, circumspection and independence.

"The special prosecutor is conducting a very serious investigation," Bush said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "He is doing it in a very dignified way, by the way, and we'll see what he says."

The session for this grand jury ends October 28, meaning that unless Fitzgerald seeks and gets an extension, indictments will be returned this week or the probe will end with no charges.

The bipartisan praise for Fitgerald may change depending on whether he comes down heavily -- or lightly -- on top White House officials.

Characteristically, he has remained mum on the case, and his office likewise has produced no leaks of its own.

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