Watergate II : White House cowers as indictments loom


Richard Moore


October 14, 2005 

Jitters at the White House Over the Leak Inquiry 

WASHINGTON, Oct. 13 - 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, post-hurricane
reconstruction and all the other issues that come across the
desk of President Bush's most influential aide.

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

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

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

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

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 .

Doug Mills contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 


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