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White House braces for probe results

Prosecutor set to announce results of CIA leak investigation

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A curious and twisting episode that began in the sixth paragraph of a 2003 newspaper column could culminate Friday in criminal charges reaching to the top echelons of the White House.

The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation, Patrick Fitzgerald, is expected on Friday to announce the results of his probe, including whether a federal grand jury will issue any indictments, an attorney involved in the case told CNN.

Two lawyers involved in the case also have told CNN that as his investigation winds down the prosecutor is focusing on whether Karl Rove, President Bush's top political strategist, committed perjury. Rove testified four times in front of the grand jury.

Thursday night, Rove appeared jovial as he pulled up in his Jaguar outside his home in Washington, where reporters and cameramen had gathered.

"It's a wonderful night, and I hope you get your pictures and go home and have a nice dinner," Rove said before walking inside.

In addition to Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney's right-hand man, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, has been ensnared in the controversy.

Sources with knowledge of the investigation told CNN that Libby could be in legal jeopardy for possibly making false statements.

Any indictments against Rove or Libby would be politically damaging to the White House at a time when Bush's approval ratings already are at a low ebb.

This week alone the president's embattled Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, withdrew, and the number of U.S. military deaths in the Iraq war surpassed 2,000.

And criminal charges could force Rove, the White House's deputy chief of staff, or Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, to step down from their posts -- particularly because of Bush's vow at the beginning of the investigation to fire anyone on his staff who was involved.

He appeared to set a higher standard in July, saying, "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration." (Full story)

The event that triggered the legal and political quagmire that has put the White House on edge was a syndicated newspaper column by Robert Novak, published on July 14, 2003, about Joe Wilson.

A week earlier, Wilson, a retired U.S. diplomat, publicly claimed that Bush administration officials, intent on building a case to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, hyped unsupported claims that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in Niger.

Novak, who also is a CNN contributor, was writing about the CIA's decision to send Wilson to the African nation in February 2002 to investigate the claims, which later wound up in Bush's 2003 State of Union address.

About midway through his column, Novak noted that Wilson "never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction."

"Two senior administration officials told me Wilson's wife suggested sending him to Niger," Novak wrote. "The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him."

An angry Wilson accused administration officials of deliberately leaking his wife's identity as a CIA operative -- thus ending her career as an undercover agent -- to retaliate against him for going public with his criticism.

Both Rove and Libby have denied leaking Plame's name.

Novak has never publicly disclosed his two sources, although he has said no one in the administration called him to leak the information.

He has also said he did not know Plame was an undercover operative at the time he identified her -- and that before the column ran he contacted Wilson, who refused to answer questions about his wife.

Among the mysteries intriguing Washington is Novak's role in the investigation. He has repeatedly refused to comment about whether he has cooperated with the investigation. However, he has said he will provide details once Fitzgerald completes his inquiry.

Deliberately disclosing the identity of a CIA operative can be a crime, and Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was named in September 2003 as a special prosecutor to investigate after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused his office to avoid any conflict of interest.

As the investigation continued, Fitzgerald's focus appears to have broadened -- as often happens in Washington scandals -- to whether anyone broke the law by trying to cover up their involvement.

Reporters subpoenaed

Trying to pin down the details of discussions between administration officials and reporters about Plame, Fitzgerald subpoenaed a number of Washington journalists.

Two of them -- Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine -- fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect their confidential sources. They lost.

Facing jail for contempt of court, Cooper testified after accepting a waiver of his confidentiality pledge from a source who turned out to be Rove.

Cooper later disclosed that he learned from Rove in July 2003 that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent involved in weapons of mass destruction issues, although Rove never used her name and never indicated she had covert status.

Cooper said he later asked Libby "if he had heard anything about Wilson's wife sending her husband to Niger," and Libby said he had, which Cooper said he took as confirmation of Rove's information.

Miller, who never wrote a story about Plame, went to jail for 85 days because, she later said, she was convinced that the waiver of confidentiality signed by her source had not been freely given.

That source turned out to be Libby. After he contacted her in jail and assured her that he had no objections to her testimony, Miller agreed to testify to the grand jury and was released from in September.

Miller later wrote about her grand jury testimony in The New York Times, saying that her notes from three interviews with Libby showed that he told her Wilson's wife "may have worked on unconventional weapons at the CIA."

But the notes did not show that he either identified her by name or described her as a covert agent or operative, Miller said.

Libby's boss, the vice president, also found his name dragged into the controversy earlier this week after the The New York Times reported that notes of a conversation between the two men indicated that Libby first learned about Plame from Cheney -- and that Cheney had sought the information from Tenet.

The Times -- citing as its sources lawyers involved in the case -- reported that the notes do not indicate that Cheney or Libby knew Plame was an undercover operative. However, they may contradict Libby's grand jury testimony that he first learned about Plame from reporters, the Times reported.

Cheney's office had no comment, and the White House would neither confirm nor deny the Times report.

Even if Cheney did discuss Plame with Libby, the vice president does not appear to face legal jeopardy, according to legal experts, because both men would have been authorized to possess such classified information.

However, any link between Cheney and the investigation could escalate the political difficulties facing the White House.

CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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