WASHINGTON – It has been two years since a grand jury began looking into the Valerie Plame (search) CIA identity case, a criminal investigation that could close up shop shortly or cause more pain for the Bush White House.
Following Friday's grand jury testimony by New York Times reporter Judith Miller (search), special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald gave no indication of his plans, and his spokesman refused to comment.
"I'm leaving," was all Fitzgerald offered to reporters as the prosecutor left the federal courthouse where he had just won the latest round in his investigation. He had finally persuaded Miller to cooperate after she spent 85 days in jail for refusing to testify.
Miller was the final holdout witness whose testimony Fitzgerald said he needed before concluding the probe into who unlawfully exposed Plame as a covert CIA officer. The grand jury expires Oct. 28.
Before Miller agreed to talk to the grand jury, her source, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), gave assurances that she could reveal the contents of their conversations. For his part, Fitzgerald promised to limit his questioning of Miller to the Libby contacts regarding Plame.
"I know what my conscience would allow and ... I stood fast to that," the reporter said as she emerged from the federal courthouse where she spent more than four hours, most of it behind closed doors testifying.
Miller's path from jail cell to grand jury room took place after a phone call with her source.
Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, says he and his client released Miller to testify more than a year ago. Tate said he was surprised when her attorneys again asked for a release in the last few weeks.
Miller's lawyers said there was "a misunderstanding and Judy wanted to hear it straight from the horse's mouth" that Libby was releasing her to talk to the grand jury about their conversation, Tate said.
If Fitzgerald seeks indictments against anyone, the ensuing prosecution would have as its backdrop one of the Bush administration's biggest political problems — its failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the main justification used by the president for going to war.
Plame's husband was former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who went on the attack against the White House on July 6, 2003, suggesting publicly that the Bush administration had twisted intelligence to exaggerate an Iraqi nuclear weapons threat in the run-up to war.
In the days after Wilson started causing problems for the White House, his wife became important to the administration as a way to undermine her husband's credibility. It turned out that she had had a hand in sending him on a trip to Africa that provided Wilson with the ammunition he later used to accuse the White House of hyping intelligence on Iraq.
All of this was underscored Friday with Miller's grand jury appearance. The narrow focus of her testimony was her conversations with Libby about the Wilson-Plame matter. The talks occurred in the crucial week following Wilson's opening salvo against an administration starting to reel from its miscalculations about Iraq.
Miller's own work has become part of that controversy.
Starting in 2002, her stories for the Times on purported weapons of mass destruction in Iraq strengthened the administration's hand in going to war. The failure to find the weapons prompted heavy criticism of Miller and the Times as well as of the administration.
Until a few months ago, the White House maintained that Libby and presidential aide Karl Rove were not involved in leaking Plame's identity. Both now appear to have had a role, based on revelations that began in July with the grand jury testimony of Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper.
In October 2003, with the criminal investigation of the Plame leak gaining speed, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said of Rove and Libby: "Those individuals assured me they were not involved in this."