Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald delayed a decision on whether to seek criminal charges against Karl Rove in large part because he wants to determine whether Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, can provide information on Rove's role in the CIA leak case, according to attorneys involved in the investigation.
Even if Fitzgerald concludes in the near future that he does not have sufficient evidence to charge Rove, the special prosecutor would not rule out bringing charges at a later date and would not finish his inquiry on Rove until he hears whatever information Libby might provide -- either incriminating or exculpatory -- on Rove's role, the sources said.
On the last day of its two-year term, the federal grand jury in the leak case indicted Libby on five counts of making false statements, perjury, and obstruction of justice as part of an alleged effort to conceal his own role, and perhaps that of other Bush administration officials, in publicly disclosing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Fitzgerald did not seek an indictment of Rove, opting to present any potential new evidence on the White House deputy chief of staff to a new grand jury. In recent days, Fitzgerald has reinterviewed several witnesses with knowledge of Rove's role in the Plame leak and talked with attorneys of other potential witnesses.
But attorneys involved in the case, as well as outside legal experts, said that even in routine criminal investigations, defendants are not typically cleared of wrongdoing until the most important witnesses are heard from. They said that any prosecutor would be remiss to wrap up a case without hearing from all the key witnesses.
The difference between a routine criminal inquiry and a high-profile case, they said, is that the latter draws extraordinary media attention, perhaps unfairly tarnishing those later found to have done nothing wrong.
Rove's situation is further complicated by the length of time it might take for Fitzgerald to learn what Libby might have to say about Rove. At Libby's arraignment in federal court on November 4, his attorneys told the judge that it is almost certain that the litigation will be "protracted," not only on evidentiary matters but also on the use of classified information.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for February 3, and a trial date won't be set for some time. If Libby is convicted, an appeal would surely further delay the outcome, perhaps for another year or more.