WASHINGTON, April 1 — Prosecutors investigating whether someone in the Bush administration improperly disclosed the identity of a C.I.A. officer have expanded their inquiry to examine whether White House officials lied to investigators or mishandled classified information related to the case, lawyers involved in the case and government officials say.
In looking at violations beyond the original focus of the inquiry, which centered on a rarely used statute that makes it a felony to disclose the identity of an undercover intelligence officer intentionally, prosecutors have widened the range of conduct under scrutiny and for the first time raised the possibility of bringing charges peripheral to the leak itself.
The expansion of the inquiry's scope comes at a time when prosecutors, after a hiatus of about a month, appear to be preparing to seek additional testimony before a federal grand jury, lawyers with clients in the case said. It is not clear whether the renewed grand jury activity represents a concluding session or a prelude to an indictment.
The broadened scope is a potentially significant development that represents exactly what allies of the Bush White House feared when Attorney General John Ashcroft removed himself from the case last December and turned it over to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago.
Republican lawyers worried that the leak case, in the hands of an aggressive prosecutor, might grow into an unwieldy, time-consuming and politically charged inquiry, like the sprawling independent counsel inquiries of the 1990's, which distracted and damaged the Clinton administration.
Mr. Fitzgerald is said by lawyers involved in the case and government officials to be examining possible discrepancies between documents he has gathered and statements made by current or former White House officials during a three-month preliminary investigation last fall by the F.B.I. and the Justice Department. Some officials spoke to F.B.I. agents with their lawyers present; others met informally with agents in their offices and even at bars near the White House.
The White House took the unusual step last year of specifically denying any involvement in the leak on the part of several top administration officials, including Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. The White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, has repeatedly said no one wants to get to the bottom of the case more than Mr. Bush.
But Mr. Bush himself has said he does not know if investigators will ever be able to determine who disclosed the identity of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame, to Robert Novak, who wrote in his syndicated column last July that Ms. Plame, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, was a C.I.A. employee.
Mr. Wilson was a critic of the administration's Iraq policies. Democrats have accused the White House of leaking his wife's name in retaliation because Mr. Wilson, in a July 6, 2003, Op-Ed commentary in The New York Times, disputed Mr. Bush's statement in his State of the Union address that January that Iraq was trying to develop a nuclear bomb and had sought to buy uranium in Africa.
The suspicion that someone may have lied to investigators is based on contradictions between statements by various witnesses in F.B.I. interviews, the lawyers and officials said. The conflicts are said to be buttressed by documents, including memos, e-mail messages and phone records turned over by the White House.
At the same time, Mr. Fitzgerald is said to be investigating whether the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity came after someone discovered her name among classified documents circulating at the upper echelons of the White House. It could be a crime to disclose information from such a document, although such violations are rarely prosecuted.
Mr. Bush's advisers have repeatedly urged White House employees to cooperate with the inquiry, and it is unclear whether Mr. Fitzgerald has made any decisions about whether to go forward or drop the case. On Thursday, Randall Samborn, a spokesman for Mr. Fitzgerald in Chicago, declined to discuss the case.
Mr. McClellan said the White House was fully cooperating with the investigation, but he declined to comment on the latest developments.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who has been in charge of the case for three months, has said he is nearing completion of the inquiry, the lawyers said. Some of them have suggested that he may be facing a problem if he declines to prosecute.
Prosecutors almost never make public the details of cases in which they investigate, but bring no charges. Federal law bars prosecutors from disclosing information obtained through a grand jury, the legal vehicle Mr. Fitzgerald has used to conduct his inquiry.
But in this case, being investigated in the heat of a closely fought presidential election, Democrats have been watching carefully for any sign that the prosecutor has favored the administration. Should Mr. Fitzgerald bring the case to a close with no indictments and no public explanation of his decision not to prosecute, he would almost certainly be subject to intense criticism from Democrats.
Several lawyers said Mr. Fitzgerald could ask a judge to allow him to issue a report. Or, they said, he could seek to employ a rarely used provision of the Justice Department's guidelines for prosecutors allowing grand juries to issue reports. But those sections of the prosecutor's manual appear to relate to public officials in organized crime cases.
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