WASHINGTON - Two key White House aides await their fate in the CIA leak probe, after a prosecutor spent three hours before a grand jury that could hand up indictments and rock the Bush administration.
The White House braced for the possibility that Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, could become a criminal defendant by week's end. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, remained in jeopardy of being charged with false statements.
Both Libby and Rove arrived for work at the White House Thursday as usual. Rove attended the daily meeting of the senior staff, but Libby did not and was said to be in a security briefing. Libby misses senior staff about half the time because of intelligence briefings and other issues on Cheney's schedule, an official said.
Rove's legal team made contingency plans, consulting with former Justice Department official Mark Corallo and GOP strategist Ed Gillespie about what defenses could be mounted in court and in public.
Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald met with Rove attorney Robert Luskin at a private law firm office Tuesday, heightening White House fears for Rove's future.
In 2003, eight days after former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat, columnist Robert Novak disclosed the identity of Wilson's wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame.
After checking with Rove and Libby, the White House categorically denied that either aide was involved in leaking Plame's identity.
Fitzgerald was appointed nearly two years ago to determine whether any presidential aides violated a federal law that prohibits the intentional unmasking of an undercover CIA officer.
The prosecutor also has discussed other charges with defense lawyers in recent weeks, including false statements, obstruction of justice and mishandling of classified information.
The grand jury's term expires on Friday, and the panel met with Fitzgerald's team for about three hours Wednesday before adjourning for the day.
The administrative assistant to Thomas Hogan, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the nation's capital, disclosed that Hogan met with Fitzgerald. The assistant, Sheldon Snook, declined to say what was discussed.
Prosecutors wrapping up a criminal investigation can meet with the chief judge to request that a new grand jury be impaneled or simply to inform of impending indictments. Grand juries also can be extended, although the one investigating the Plame leak is two years old.
Beyond Libby and Rove, Fitzgerald also has interviewed officials at the State Department and CIA about their conversations with the White House and their access to information about Plame and a trip her husband took for the CIA to check on pre-Iraq war intelligence.
The public appeared divided about the controversy. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken over the weekend found 39 percent of Americans believe the leak of Plame's name was illegal, another 39 percent believed it was unethical but not illegal and the remainder saw nothing wrong or were not sure.
During the investigation, prosecutors forced testimony from journalists about confidential sources. They assembled evidence that Rove talked about Wilson's wife with columnist Robert Novak and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper before both reporters wrote stories outing Plame. And the prosecutors gathered evidence that Libby gave information about Wilson's wife to Cooper and on three occasions to New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
When Novak disclosed Plame's name, the columnist said he had two senior administration officials for sources. Rove is said to be one of the sources, but the other isn't publicly known.
As the White House's original denials collapsed, administration defenders said that the source of any information Rove and Libby may have passed on about Plame came from reporters and not from classified sources.
But in the past two weeks, that assertion has been undercut with the revelation that Libby got information from Cheney before the aide met with reporters, and that Rove may have gotten information from Libby.
Prosecutors have zeroed in on inconsistencies. Rove and Cooper differed over the original reason for their contact. Prosecutors have raised concern that Rove at first testified only about his contact with Novak without acknowledging the Cooper discussion.
After Rove's attorney located an e-mail referring to that conversation, Rove volunteered to return to the grand jury and discuss his conversation with Cooper.