WASHINGTON - Working against the clock, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald weighed criminal charges against top presidential aides at the end of a two-year investigation that put the White House in a state of high suspense Thursday night.
Fitzgerald raced against a Friday expiration of the grand jury that has been investigating the exposure of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Speculation flew across Washington about who would be indicted, or whether Fitzgerald would even bring criminal charges.
White House colleagues feared Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, would be indicted Friday for at least false statements but held out hope that presidential political adviser Karl Rove might escape criminal charges for the time being.
A person outside the legal profession familiar with recent developments in the case said Thursday night that Rove's team does not believe he is out of legal jeopardy yet but likely would be spared bad news Friday when the White House fears the first indictments will be issued.
Fitzgerald signaled Thursday he might keep Rove under continuing investigation, sparing him from immediate charges, the person said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the grand jury probe.
Both Rove and Libby put in their normal long work day at the White House on Thursday.
The prospect of indictments added to the woes of an administration already facing serious political problems.
On a day when the White House dealt with the withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, Rove attended the daily meeting of the senior staff and met with President Bush late in the evening. Libby was said to have passed up the staff meeting to attend a security briefing.
Two blocks from the White House, Fitzgerald was at work in his Washington office, considering his next moves in the investigation.
In addition to false statements, prosecutors have also considered other charges such as mishandling classified information, obstruction of justice or illegally disclosing the identity of a covert intelligence agent.
When the investigation began two years ago, a White House spokesman checked with Rove and Libby, then assured the public that neither was involved in leaking Plame's identity.
In the past several weeks, Libby has acknowledged that he spoke to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and the newspaper has reported that their talks were about Plame's CIA status.
Rove's legal problems stem in part from the fact that he failed to tell prosecutors about a conversation in which he told Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA. The president's top political adviser says the conversation slipped his mind.
Fitzgerald's office found out about the Rove-Cooper contact last year when Rove's lawyer discovered an e-mail that the prosecutor had not previously requested. The e-mail memorialized the Rove-Cooper phone call.
As late as this week, Fitzgerald was still hunting for witnesses who could undercut Rove's assertion that he had forgotten about the conversation.
Rove's legal team is making contingency plans and consulting with former Justice Department official Mark Corallo about what defenses could be mounted in court and in public.
Fitzgerald met with Rove attorney Robert Luskin at a private law firm office Tuesday, heightening White House fears for Rove's future.
According to Cooper's testimony, Rove told him of Plame's CIA status in a conversation about Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson on July 11, 2003. That conversation came five days after Wilson had accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Columnist Robert Novak revealed Plame's name and her CIA status on July 14, five days after talking to Rove and eight days after Wilson made his claim about Iraq intelligence.
The backdrop for Fitzgerald's investigation is a set of forged documents that said Iraq was acquiring uranium yellowcake from the African nation of Niger.
On Thursday, the White House disputed an Italian news report relating to those forgeries.
The news reports and speculation on Internet blogs is that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley may have received bogus information three years ago from an Italian intelligence chief about Iraq's nuclear ambitions.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said Hadley met briefly on Sept. 9, 2002, with Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italian military intelligence, but the subject of Iraq's supposed uranium yellowcake purchase from Niger is not believed to have come up.
The meeting occurred a month before documents, later determined to be forgeries, surfaced in Italy claiming to show Saddam Hussein's regime had an agreement to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger. Plame's husband went to the country on the CIA's behalf to check into the claim and reported he could not substantiate it.
The Hadley-Pollari meeting was a "courtesy call" that lasted fewer than 15 minutes and "no one present has any recollection of yellowcake being discussed or documents being provided," Jones said.
Hadley would later approve using similar information about the alleged uranium purchase in President Bush's key speech that made the case for going to war, even though the CIA had reservations about its accuracy. Hadley later apologized when it was learned the Italian documents were fakes.
Italian press accounts have raised questions about whether Pollari's agency was involved with the fake documents and he is scheduled to testify before a parliamentary investigation next week. The Italian government, however, denies any involvement with the bogus documents.