WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Washington seethed with rumors and speculation Tuesday night on the eve of the expected announcement of possible indictments in the Valerie Plame CIA leak probe.
There was widespread expectation that I. Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney would be indicted in Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's probe and the very real possibility that Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff and long-time top political strategist and advisor to President George W. Bush would be indicted as well.
Congressional sources told United Press International that National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and former White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer could be indicted as well.
Other sources told UPI that between one to five indictments would be issued and that the subjects of the indictments had already received notification of them Tuesday.
If Libby is indicted, pressure could rapidly mount on Cheney, the most powerful vice president in American history and a key driving force behind the Iraq war, to step down. Speculation swirled in Washington Tuesday that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., President Bush's chief rival for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, would be the frontrunner to succeed him as vice president.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Libby had first learned the identity of Plame, the CIA officer at the heart of the leak investigation, in a conversation with the vice president, his longtime boss, only weeks before her identity became public in 2003. The paper cited lawyers involved with the case as their source.
The previously undisclosed conversation took place on June 12, 2003 and it appeared to differ significantly from Libby's previous testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about Plame from journalists, the New York Times said.
Plame's identity as a CIA agent was made public by syndicated columnist Robert Novak in a column he wrote that appeared on July 14, 2003.
The New York Times said that Libby's own notes indicated that Cheney himself had received his information about Plame from then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet in response to questions that Cheney had asked.
The paper also noted that any effort by Libby try to avoid discussing his conversations with the vice president could be considered by Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald as an illegal effort to impede his inquiry. Fitzgerald has until Friday to announce who, if anyone, will face prosecution after 22 months of grand jury hearings and private interviews.
Plame's identity was leaked soon after her diplomat husband publicly criticized the Bush administration's claim the war in Iraq was necessary because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The conversation between Libby and Cheney apparently took place on the day The Washington Post published a front-page story by Walter Pincus about an unnamed diplomat, later publicly identified as Plame Wilson's husband Joseph Wilson, and his mission to Niger.
"A key component of President Bush's claim in his State of the Union address last January that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program -- its alleged attempt to buy uranium in Niger -- was disputed by a CIA-directed mission to the central African nation in early 2002, according to senior administration officials and a former government official," Pincus wrote.
The New York Times story for the first time placed Cheney in the heart of the investigation. That has thrown the White House and the vice president's office into turmoil.
MSNBC reporter David Shuster said Tuesday morning that the New York Times report could have devastating implications for Libby. "For Scooter Libby, it suggests that his legal exposure may be even greater than expected... This also raises questions about Vice President Cheney. What did the vice president tell investigators? Did the vice president also tell them that he learned about Valerie Plame a month before her identity was revealed by reporters?
"Why was Scooter Libby trying to protect the vice president in some fashion? Did the vice president know that Scooter Libby was trying to protect him in some fashion? And were there any steps that were taken to further that effort?"
White House sources have told UPI that any senior figure that is indicted would resign their position.
If Rove were indicted and forced to resign, the White House would effectively be decapitated and the president would be deprived of the figure that has been his effective alter ego through five years in power and two successful presidential campaigns.