New questions over Vice President Dick Cheney's alleged role in a CIA leak scandal bombarded the White House as it braced for a special prosecutor to decide whether to indict trusted Bush administration aides.
With Washington gripped by anticipation Wednesday over prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's next move, expected by Friday, a New York Times report put the powerful vice president closer than ever to the drama.
The White House yesterday sidestepped questions on whether Cheney told his chief of staff Lewis Libby about CIA officer Valerie Plame, at the center of a leak probe as investigators wrapped up interviews with witnesses ahead of indictments expected as early as Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
Cheney told his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, about CIA spy Valerie Plame, whose cover was later blown during the political firestorm sparked by claims that the Bush administration exaggerated the case for war with Iraq in 2003, the paper said.
After Plame's name later found its way into news reports, her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, claimed senior Bush aides exposed his wife in revenge for his criticism of the intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Knowingly outing a covert operative is a crime in the United States.
Bush ignored a reporter's shouted question on the Times report, and his spokesman Scott McClellan refused to confirm or deny it, while warning: "Just because I'm not commenting on it doesn't mean you should read anything into that one way or the other."
McClellan was also asked by reporters whether Cheney always told Americans the truth.
"Yes," he said. "The vice president, like the president, is a straightforward, plainspoken person."
The grand jury Fitzgerald used to question witnesses expires on Friday, and he appears to be closing in on Bush's political guru Karl Rove as well as Libby.
Fitzgerald's agents earlier this week also asked Plame's neighbors if they were aware that she worked for the CIA before she was exposed, apparently to determine whether her status was really covert. The Washington Post said two neighbors expressed surprise on learning she was a spy.
The Post also said White House officials were bracing for at least one indictment when the grand jury convenes here later Wednesday. Rove and Libby could face charges of perjury related to covering up their actions.
Citing lawyers involved in the case, the Times said Libby's notes revealed that he had learned about Plame in a conversation with Cheney on June 12, 2003 -- weeks before her name was revealed by a newspaper columnist.
That claim did not square with Libby's earlier testimony to the grand jury that he had first heard her name from journalists, the paper said.
While the report did not prove wrongdoing on the part of Cheney or Libby, it added to the pile of questions surrounding the role of the vice president's office, and bolstered hints that Fitzgerald could be mulling obstruction of justice of perjury charges.
It was also intriguing because Cheney said in a television interview in September 2003 that he did not know Wilson, a former US ambassador to Gabon, sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium for nuclear bombs.
Despite Wilson's conclusion that the uranium claims were doubtful, the White House used them to partly justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The latest drama added to woes besetting the White House including a stubborn insurgency in Iraq, which on Tuesday claimed its 2,000th American soldier; the Hurricane Katrina debacle; and a chaotic nomination campaign for Bush's Supreme Court pick, Harriet Miers, and has left some observers diagnosing turmoil in the president's second term.
Both sides in the bitterly polarised US capital appeared to be laying plans to battle over any indictments.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer called on Bush to sack any White House aide indicted.
"Anyone indicted, and thus found likely to have violated the law on a national security issue, should be ... removed from the White House staff," Schumer said in a letter to the president.
"I urge you to call on your alleged 'allies' to refrain from attacking either Mr. Fitzgerald or his decision, whatever it is."
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