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Jitters at the White House Over the Leak Inquiry
Published on Friday, October 14, 2005 by the New York Times
Jitters at the White House Over the Leak Inquiry
by Richard Stevenson
 
WASHINGTON - Karl Rove nosed his Jaguar out of the garage at his home in Northwest Washington in the predawn gloom, starting another day in which he would be dealing with a troubled Supreme Court nomination, posthurricane reconstruction and all the other issues that come across the desk of President Bush's most influential aide.


President Bush, left, and his Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove are pictured leaving the White House in this July 14, 2005 file photo in Washington. Rove is expected to appear for the fourth time before a grand jury investigating the leaking of the name of a covert CIA operative today, October 14, 2005. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)
But Mr. Rove's first challenge on Wednesday morning came before he cleared his driveway: how to get past the five television crews and the three photographers waiting for him. He flashed his blinding high beams into the camera lenses and sped by.

That is the way things are for the Bush White House these days. The routines are the same. But everything, in the glare of the final stages of a criminal investigation that has reached to the highest levels of power in Washington, is different.

Mr. Rove is scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury on Friday, the fourth time he will have done so in the case, which centers on the disclosure of an undercover C.I.A. officer's identity.

Mr. Rove, deputy White House chief of staff for policy and senior adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, are the most prominent administration officials to find themselves squirming under the attention of the hard-nosed special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and the attendant news media scrutiny.

But the inquiry has swept up a dozen or more other officials who have been questioned by investigators or have testified before the grand jury, and, should it lead to the indictment of anyone at a senior level, it has the potential to upend the professional lives of everyone at the White House for the remainder of Mr. Bush's second term.

The result, say administration officials and friends and allies on the outside who speak regularly with them, is a mood of intense uncertainty in the White House that veers in some cases into fear of the personal and political consequences and anger at having been caught in the snare of a special prosecutor. And given how badly things have been going for Mr. Bush and his team on other fronts - a poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center put his approval rating at 38 percent, a new low - they hardly have deep reserves of internal enthusiasm or external good will to draw on.

"Everyone is going about the work at hand while bracing for the worst case," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to get around the official White House position that it will not comment on the investigation.

Most administrations come to a point like this, at risk of being paralyzed internally and frozen externally in the klieg lights of scandal. To those who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, it was almost a way of life and such a searing experience that many former Clinton officials have more than a dollop of sympathy for what their successors in power are going through.

"In this presumption of guilt culture, which is what has come about in Washington in the last 10 or 15 years, there must be a sense of anger there and an inability to manage the facts," said Lanny J. Davis, a lawyer in Washington who was brought into the Clinton White House to help deal with the multiple investigations of that administration. "It's hard to imagine how bad it is. You sit at your desk and you know what the facts are, but you can't get them out to the public because the lawyers tell you you can't - or if you can, the noise from the presumption of guilt culture overwhelms the facts."

Mr. Bush joked late last year with Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, about why Mr. Cooper was not yet in jail for fighting a subpoena demanding that he testify about a conversation with a source who later turned out to be Mr. Rove. These days, though, the leak investigation is almost never spoken of openly within the West Wing, and certainly not made light of, administration officials say.

Lawyers for most of the officials who have testified before the grand jury have by and large chosen not to share information with one another, leaving colleagues largely in the dark about what others are telling Mr. Fitzgerald.

There is a presumption inside the White House that anyone who was indicted would resign or go on leave to fight the charges, though it is unclear what planning has taken place for that possibility.

The prospect of a White House without Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's longtime strategist, has some allies of the president in a near panic, fearful that without him the administration would lose the one person capable of enforcing discipline across a party that has become increasingly fractious and that is almost at war with itself over the president's nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

With the White House stumbling and preoccupied, some allies of the president already see a policy void that is being filled by other prominent Republicans, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, who recently outmaneuvered the administration to win passage of an amendment that would set new standards to guard against the use of torture in the interrogation of detainees in the fight against terrorism.

Asked about the case in his daily on-camera news briefing on Thursday, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, portrayed Mr. Bush as eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation. The case centers on whether administration officials illegally disclosed the identity of the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, as part of an effort to distance the White House from criticism by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV. In mid-2003, Mr. Wilson, a former diplomat, became an outspoken critic of how the administration had used prewar intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs to justify the invasion.

The investigation led to the imprisonment of a reporter for The New York Times, Judith Miller, for 85 days for refusing to testify before the grand jury about a conversation with a confidential source, later identified as Mr. Libby.

"The president has said that no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than he does," said Mr. McClellan, whose own credibility has taken a pounding because of statements he made two years ago that Mr. Rove had no involvement in leaking the C.I.A. officer's identity. "I want to get to the bottom of it. We don't know all the facts."

Despite the fear inspired by Mr. Fitzgerald, the White House has treated the special prosecutor extremely gingerly, making no public criticism and pledging at every turn to be completely cooperative. When Mr. Bush was asked about the investigation during an appearance on the NBC News "Today" program on Tuesday, he said Mr. Fitzgerald had conducted the case in "a very dignified way," a statement that could make it difficult for Republicans to attack the prosecutor if he should bring charges against administration officials.

If the Bush White House is marked by anything, it is relentlessness and resilience. While the West Wing seems more on edge than usual - Mr. McClellan got into an uncharacteristically heated exchange with reporters on Thursday about the Miers nomination - the official line is business as usual, and the principals appear to be trying hard to play their roles.

Mr. Libby still arises in the wee hours each morning and puts in 14- to 16-hour days in Mr. Cheney's office. Mr. Rove, who left his house at 5:50 on Wednesday morning, has kept up his usual duties, Mr. McClellan said. After appearing before the grand jury on Friday, Mr. Rove will get right back into political mode. He is scheduled to appear at a fund-raiser over the weekend for Jerry Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia.

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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