G.O.P. Testing Ways to Blunt Leak Charges



WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 - With a decision expected this week on possible indictments in the C.I.A. leak case, allies of the White House suggested Sunday that they intended to pursue a strategy of attacking any criminal charges as a disagreement over legal technicalities or the product of an overzealous prosecutor.

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the case, is expected to announce no later than the end of the week whether he will seek indictments against White House officials in a decision that is likely to be a defining moment of President Bush's second term. The case has put many in the White House on edge. [Page A15.]

Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, and I. Lewis Libby Jr., who is Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, have been advised that they are in serious legal jeopardy. Other officials could also face charges in connection with the disclosure of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer in 2003.

On Sunday, Republicans appeared to be preparing to blunt the impact of any charges. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, speaking on the NBC news program "Meet the Press," compared the leak investigation with the case of Martha Stewart and her stock sale, "where they couldn't find a crime and they indict on something that she said about something that wasn't a crime."

Ms. Hutchison said she hoped "that if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."

President Bush said several weeks ago that Mr. Fitzgerald had handled the case in "a very dignified way," making it more difficult for Republicans to portray him negatively.

But allies of the White House have quietly been circulating talking points in recent days among Republicans sympathetic to the administration, seeking to help them make the case that bringing charges like perjury mean the prosecutor does not have a strong case, one Republican with close ties to the White House said Sunday. Other people sympathetic to Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby have said that indicting them would amount to criminalizing politics and that Mr. Fitzgerald did not understand how Washington works.

Some Republicans have also been reprising a theme that was often sounded by Democrats during the investigations into President Bill Clinton, that special prosecutors and independent counsels lack accountability and too often pursue cases until they find someone to charge.

Congressional Republicans have also been signaling that they want to put some distance between their agenda and the White House's potential legal and political woes, seeking to cast the leak case as an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon of little interest to most voters.

"I think we just need to stick to our knitting on the topics and the subjects the American people care about," Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, said on "Fox News Sunday."

The case, which traces back to an effort by the White House to rebut criticism of its use of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq, has grown into a crisis for the administration that has the potential to shape the remainder of Mr. Bush's second term. Democrats signaled Sunday that they would use the inquiry to help weave a broader tapestry portraying the Republican Party as corrupt and the White House as dishonest with the American people.

"We know that the president wasn't truthful with us when he sent us to Iraq," Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on "This Week" on ABC. "What got Rove and Libby in trouble was because they were attacking, which the Republicans always do, attacking somebody who criticized them and disagreed with them. They make the attacks personal. They go over the line."

Beyond introducing a Web site for his office last week, Mr. Fitzgerald has given no public hints of what, if any, action he might take. Whatever he decides, he is expected to make an announcement before Friday, the final day of the term of his grand jury. In the past, the grand jury has met on Wednesdays and Fridays.

His silence has left much of official Washington and nearly everyone who works at or with the White House in a state of high anxiety. That has been compounded by the widespread belief that there are aspects of the case beyond those directly involving Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby that remain all but unknown outside of Mr. Fitzgerald's office. Among them is the mystery of who first provided the C.I.A. officer's identity to the syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who published it on July 14, 2003.

The negative effects on Mr. Bush's presidency if his senior aides were indicted, said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, would be as great as the positive effects of Mr. Bush's handling of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This is the most important turning point for his administration in terms of turning down and losing support," Mr. Thurber said.

A weakened White House, he said, could lead to further infighting among the conservatives who provide most of Mr. Bush's legislative, grass-roots and financial support, and could leave the administration with even less political clout to sway Democrats in Republican-leaning states to back Mr. Bush's agenda. In the Senate, Mr. Bush has depended on support from at least a few Democrats to push through many of his major initiatives.

Republicans acknowledged the problems facing the White House but said Mr. Bush would ultimately be judged on whether he produced results in addressing the issues of most concern to the American people.

"If you look at poll numbers and things like that, we face challenges," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. But even in the last few months, he said, the White House has made "tremendous long-term progress" on a variety of fronts.

He cited the referendum on a constitution in Iraq, signs that the economy remains strong and what he characterized as evidence that Mr. Bush's signature education legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, is producing measurable results.

Mr. Fitzgerald has been focused on whether there was an illegal effort at the White House to undermine the credibility of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who became a critic of the administration's Iraq policy by his dismissive comments over the possibility that Baghdad had sought to buy uranium fuel from Niger.

The prosecutor has sought to determine if the effort against Mr. Wilson involved the intentional identification of his wife, Valerie Wilson. Mr. Fitzgerald has tried to find out whether Bush officials violated the law that protects the identities of undercover officers like Ms. Wilson or sought to impede the inquiry by misleading investigators or providing false information about their actions.