WASHINGTON – It began with a clumsy forgery, led President Bush to backtrack on his own State of the Union address, already has sent one person to jail and has ruined another's career as a covert operative.
The cast of characters in this latest tale of Washington intrigue -- the CIA leak investigation -- keeps growing as a federal prosecutor tries to sort out who told what to whom and whether any of it was a crime.
Those caught up in the maelstrom include a power couple with a big secret, a duo of no-longer-anonymous Bush administration officials and a constellation of media heavyweights with secrets, too. It runs the spectrum from the biggest of big fish, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, to the merest of minnows, White House functionaries.
Meet the Wilsons
Up until three years ago, Joe and Valerie Wilson (search) looked like just another upscale couple on the Washington scene, juggling serious jobs while keeping up with 2-year-old twins. He was a former ambassador turned international business consultant. She was an analyst for a Boston-based energy company -- a working soccer mom, in the view of one of her neighbors.
As it turns out, Valerie really was a clandestine CIA agent and an expert on weapons of mass destruction, exactly the threat that Bush held out as the primary justification for going to war in Iraq. And, as it turns out, Joe's experience as an African envoy also made him a player.
CIA officials asked him to travel to Africa in February 2002 to check out a report that Niger sold uranium to Iraq in the late 1990s for use in nuclear weapons. Wilson quickly concluded the report was bogus. (Documents related to the purported sale later were exposed as a forgery.)
The unsubstantiated uranium deal surfaced again in Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address. Six months later, Wilson went public in a big way with his accusations that the administration had twisted intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.
Writing in The New York Times under the headline, "What I didn't Find in Africa," Wilson set off a firestorm that inevitably led to attacks on his credibility.
Six days after Wilson's article appeared, conservative columnist Robert Novak wrote that "two senior administration officials" had told him that Wilson's wife, identified by her maiden name as Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative who had suggested sending Wilson on the trip. The CIA denied Plame had suggested her husband for the job.
But in that instant, her career as a covert officer was over.
Then came the question that won't go away: Who outed Valerie Plame?
It is Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's (search) job to answer the question.
When Fitzgerald was tapped in December 2003 to lead the leak investigation, he was introduced at the Justice Department as "Eliot Ness with a Harvard law degree and a sense of humor." All humor aside, Fitzgerald, 45, is known as an aggressive prosecutor used to making people nervous. He also is known to be scrupulously fair.
He has been relentless in questioning everyone from Bush down to assistant press secretaries. As is often the case in the scandal-prone capital, his examination has expanded to look at whether any witnesses gave false testimony, mishandled classified information or obstructed justice.
The son of an Irish immigrant father who worked as a doorman in Brooklyn, N.Y., Fitzgerald joined the U.S. attorney's office in New York. He prosecuted terrorists in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center and the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa before taking his current job in 2001 -- U.S. attorney in Chicago.
Even as he keeps official Washington on tenterhooks, Fitzgerald is probing allegations of payoffs and fraud at City Hall in Chicago, where some politicians would rather he'd just leave town for good. "I'm just going to do my job until the telephone rings and somebody tells me not to," he said in August.
Call Me Anonymous
Two of the most influential aides to Bush and Cheney now are known to have discussed Wilson's wife with reporters on condition of anonymity. But both aides say they were simply trading information that came from other reporters in gossipy Washington and reject any suggestion they were trying to punish Wilson for criticizing the president.
Presidential adviser Karl Rove (search) is the mastermind behind Bush's two successful presidential campaigns. A White House aide with a bulging portfolio, Rove has been called before Fitzgerald's grand jury four times. Prosecutors have advised him that they no longer can assure he will escape indictment. Rove talked to at least two reporters about Wilson's wife.
Rove's history with the Bush family goes way back. In 1992, he was fired from the re-election campaign of the first President Bush on suspicion of leaking details of the campaign's Texas operation to none other than Novak.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), Cheney's chief of staff and foreign policy adviser, has been called before the grand jury at least once. Grand jury testimony shows he met three times with a New York Times reporter before the leak of Plame's identity, initiated a call to an NBC reporter and was a confirming source about Wilson's wife for Time magazine. In the latest twist, Rove has testified that it is possible that Libby was his source.
Who else might be under the microscope? Rove sent an e-mail to top national security aide Stephen Hadley discussing one of his conversations related to Wilson.
Wilson himself speculated last year that the leak might have come from Elliott Abrams, a figure in the Reagan administration Iran-Contra affair and now a member of Bush's National Security Council.
He said another possibility was that a lower-level official in Cheney's office -- John Hannah or David Wurmser -- leaked Plame's identity at the behest of higher-ups "to keep their fingerprints off the crime."
It was Novak who first reported Plame's CIA connection, but other reporters also were talking with administration officials about Wilson and his wife.
The Times' Judith Miller went to jail for 85 days before sharing with the grand jury what she knew. After Libby personally assured her that he had waived her pledge of confidentiality, Miller told the grand jury about three conversations with him.
She said Libby was the first to suggest a CIA tie for Wilson's wife but did not reveal her name. She never wrote about the CIA connection because her focus was elsewhere.
Time reporter Matt Cooper (search) went before the grand jury once and told of conversations with Rove and Libby. He said Rove indicated Wilson's wife worked at the CIA but didn't reveal her name or that her work was covert.
Libby confirmed Plame's CIA connection, again without giving her name or specifying her covert status. "Is any of this a crime?" Cooper wrote in a first-person account this summer. "Beats me."
Who else knew?
Last year, NBC's Tim Russert (search) answered some of the prosecutor's questions about conversations he had with Libby. Libby told the grand jury he had heard about Wilson's wife from Russert, but Russert told authorities he did not know her identity until it was published and therefore couldn't have been Libby's source.
Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus (search) answered investigators' questions about a conversation with an unidentified administration official. Under the arrangements for his testimony, Pincus did not identify the official to investigators, who already knew the official's identity.
Novak, for the record, says the leak about Plame first came to him as a "an offhand revelation" from an official who is "no partisan gunslinger." Novak apparently has cooperated with prosecutors, though neither he nor his lawyer has said so.
Are there other reporters who heard secrets they shouldn't have been told?
In September 2003, The Washington Post reported that White House officials had called at least six reporters and disclosed Plame's identity -- so far, five names have surfaced.
Part of the fascination with the leak investigation revolves around what, if anything, Bush and Cheney knew about the leaks and when.
Fitzgerald is said to be investigating for possible Cheney involvement, in particular. Both the president and vice president have been questioned by investigators, although not under oath.
One important question is what Bush and Cheney might do if top aides like Rove or Libby are found to have been the leakers.
In a way, the whole Wilson saga can be traced back to Cheney and Bush. It was Cheney's interest in the alleged Iraq-Niger deal that led the CIA to dispatch Wilson to Africa. And it Bush's use of the debunked claim in his State of the Union address that led Wilson to publish his doubts.
Inevitably, some little fish get snagged in nets intended for bigger catch.
Count Adam Levine among them. The former White House press aide was called before the grand jury last year, mainly to answer questions about press office procedures. Investigators may have decided to question him simply because higher-ups in the press office were away during the week just prior to publication of Novak's column.