<!--:es-->Leak grand jury meets prosecutor<!--:-->

Leak grand jury meets prosecutor

Session lasted three hours

WASHINGTON – The federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative’s identity met with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald 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 left the session that lasted three hours.

It was unclear whether the grand jury voted on indictments during the secret meeting. An announcement could still come on Thursday or Friday, when the panel could meet again for a final time. The grand jury is scheduled to expire on Friday unless Fitzgerald extends it.

Fitzgerald’s investigation has centered 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.

Any charges brought by the grand jury could be sealed, preventing an immediate public announcement by the court or the prosecutor.

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 Friday through Sunday.

The secret grand jury session followed a last-minute flurry of interviews by investigators with CIA operative Valerie Plame’s neighbors 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 prewar 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.

On Wednesday Bush had a full day, meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and congressional Republicans about the budget, making a mid-day speech on the economy.

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, obstruction of justice and disclosing classified information.

But there were 11th-hour signs that Fitzgerald could still bring charges for the leak itself. FBI agents on Monday night questioned some of Plame’s neighbors about whether they knew about her CIA work before her identity was leaked to the press. The interviews could help Fitzgerald show that Plame’s status had been a closely guarded secret.