WASHINGTON – Two years after the White House asserted that senior administration officials had nothing to do with disclosing the name of a covert CIA agent, a criminal probe of that leak moved a step closer to its end Friday with questions about the role of the top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

On Friday, New York Times reporter Judith Miller testified before a grand jury after spending 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her source. She finally agreed to testify after Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, personally assured her that he voluntarily waived any confidentiality regarding conversations with her.

Libby’s attorney asserted on Friday that Libby had not given Miller the name of the CIA agent, and also maintained that Libby is not a target of a probe that appears to be reaching its climax with the long-sought testimony of the now-freed journalist.

The investigation led by Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has questioned many members of the Bush administration – including the president himself. Karl Rove, Bush’s deputy chief of staff and chief political strategist, also has been identified as a reporter’s source in the investigation, though his lawyer too asserts that Rove is not a target of the probe.

The grand jury has until Oct. 28 to return indictments if anyone is to be charged in the matter, and a lawyer close to the investigation says Fitzgerald should “be in a position to wrap up” the inquiry now that Miller finally has testified.

“You’ll have to ask Mr. Fitzgerald why it was so important,” Miller said of her testimony Friday.

A spokesman for Fitzgerald, Randall Samborn, refused to comment on the investigation.

It is unknown whether any Bush administration officials will be charged in the matter. But the investigation has already clouded the image of a White House dealing with an investigation into the actions of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as investigations of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

In the course of the grand jury’s two-year investigation, Libby and Rove were identified as sources who aided reporters inquiring about Joseph Wilson. Wilson is a former ambassador who was asked by the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium for nuclear weapons, one of the Bush administration’s prewar allegations against Saddam Hussein.

Eight days after Wilson published a newspaper essay in July 2003 accusing the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, newspaper columnist Robert Novak cited two administration sources in reporting that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA agent.

It’s a federal crime to intentionally reveal the identity of a covert agent with intent to endanger national security. Wilson’s supporters claim the White House revealed Plame’s identity to intimidate him and to discredit him by suggesting that Plame was responsible for getting Wilson sent on the highly sensitive assignment.

Lawyers for Libby and Rove have maintained that although they spoke with reporters about Wilson and Plame, they did not name her.

But even that may contradict a statement by a White House spokesman in October 2003 that neither Rove nor Libby was involved at all in the stories disclosing Plame’s identity. “Those individuals assured me they were not involved,” spokesman Scott McClellan said.

“If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration,” McClellan also said at the time. Since Rove was identified this year as a source for Time Magazine in its coverage of the matter, Bush has drawn a narrower definition for disciplinary action, with the president promising in July that he would fire any aide who has “committed a crime.”

Other reporters who named Plame in their accounts of the controversy testified about their conversations with Rove and Libby after obtaining waivers from confidentiality agreements the reporters had with their sources. But only Miller, who never actually wrote an article identifying Plame, went to jail for refusing to talk.

Miller finally agreed to testify this week after Libby personally assured her last week that he had waived their confidentiality agreement without any coercion by anyone, a waiver of confidentiality that Libby’s lawyer says was made in writing over a year ago. Miller’s attorney contacted Libby’s lawyer saying that Miller wanted to hear it from Libby himself.

“My source genuinely wanted me to testify,” Miller said after testifying before the grand jury Friday.

She said she was upholding a longstanding duty that reporters have to their sources, and would not have testified unless she had both her source’s permission and the prosecutor’s agreement to limit any questioning to matters involving that source.

Libby’s lawyer has voiced surprise that Miller took this long to testify about conversations she had with Libby in July 2003. Libby did not even know Plame’s name at the time, his attorney said Friday, and Libby had given prosecutors written permission for Miller to discuss their conversations.

Libby volunteered the waiver of confidentiality over a year ago, attorney Joseph Tate said Friday. “We had no idea this had to do with him,” he said of Miller’s longtime refusal to testify. “We thought she was in (jail) as a matter of principle, that she was protecting other sources.”

In addition, Tate said, he has no reason to believe that Libby is a target of Fitzgerald’s investigation.

“He is not a target,” Tate said. “We have never been advised that we are a target.”

Rove’s attorney has repeatedly made the same assertion about the president’s chief political adviser, whom a Time reporter has named as a source. Rove told Time’s Matthew Cooper that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, Cooper has said he told the grand jury, but Rove did not identify the agent by name.

“Not quite a year ago, I received oral and written assurances from the counsel that Karl is not a target of the investigation,” Rove attorney Robert Luskin said Friday. “There is nothing I am aware of in the matters that have come to light since then that would change that.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.