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White House braces for leak charges

Washington, Oct. 26 (Reuters): The federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative’s identity met special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald today amid signs the prosecutor was preparing to seek criminal charges.

Fitzgerald, who has interviewed many senior White House figures as he seeks the source of the leak, declined comment as he began the session that lasted through the morning.

Any charges brought by the grand jury could be sealed, preventing a public announcement by the court or the prosecutor until possibly tomorrow or Friday, when the panel is scheduled to expire. No announcement was expected today, an administration official said.

Fitzgerald’s investigation has centred on Lewis Libby, chief of staff for vice-president Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s top political adviser. Other aides may also be charged, lawyers involved with the case said.

Discussing the possibility of sealed indictments, one attorney said Fitzgerald could be acting to put pressure on people involved in the two-year probe. “The usual reason is to keep something secret from a witness or a defendant,” the attorney said. “It could mean he still wants to get people to come back in” and provide testimony or plead guilty.

A new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll found the investigation was affecting Americans’ view of the White House, with nearly four in 10 respondents saying they believed Bush aides broke the law. Another four in 10 said administration officials had acted unethically. The poll was conducted from Friday to Sunday.

The secret grand jury session followed a last-minute flurry of interviews by investigators with CIA operative Valerie Plame’s neighbours and a former colleague of Rove, a top White House adviser.

Plame’s identity was leaked to the news media after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the administration of twisting pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Wilson said it was done deliberately to erode his credibility.

White House officials were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the case since any indicted officials were expected to resign immediately. If indictments are brought, Bush was likely to make a public statement. Today Bush had a full day, meeting the US ambassador to Iraq and congressional Republicans about the budget, making a mid-day economic speech and planning to meet the Prime Minister of Macedonia.

Both Rove and Libby were at the White House senior staff meeting in the morning as usual, an official said. White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not say whether the leak subject came up in the meeting.

“Everybody’s focused on the priorities of the American people. We’re focused on the work at hand. That’s what we will continue to do. We certainly are following developments in the news, but everybody's got a lot of work to do,” he said.

Lawyers involved in the case said it could be difficult for Fitzgerald to charge administration officials with knowingly revealing Plame’s identity. They said Fitzgerald appeared more likely to seek charges for easier-to-prove crimes such as making false statements and obstruction of justice.

But there were 11th-hour signs that Fitzgerald could still bring charges for the leak itself.

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