Monday, October 3, 2005

What Now, Mr. Fitzgerald?

With the testimony of New York Times reporter Judith Miller complete, at least with regard to her communications with Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation looks largely complete.  The grand jury is scheduled to complete its 18-month term at the end of October, although it can be extended by six-months if there is sufficient necessity -- and Chief Judge Thomas Hogan is unlikely to deny such a request.  Nevertheless, the gist of Miller's testimony was most likely known by the special prosecutor's staff in advance, so Fitzgerald ought to be able to make decisions about whether to seek charges within the next month or so, and if necessary have the grand jury return any indictment before it expires.

A Washington Post article (here) speculates that Fitzgerald's staff may be considering a conspiracy charge against senior administration officials who sought to have the identity  and covert role of Valerie Plame disclosed in order to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson.  If the officials plotted to leak her position as a covert agent, which is a crime, then they could be found guilty of a conspiracy even if no official can be shown specifically to have disclosed the information about Plame to a particular reporter.  The information came from someone, and if an elaborate subterfuge was used to leak it, then it is possible to bring a conspiracy charge.  There would be significant problems with such a prosecution, starting with proving the intent of the administration officials and a criminal agreement.  Vague assertions of a motive to discredit Wilson would not, in themselves, prove the agreement necessary for a conspiracy charge.  The fact that different reporters, speaking to different officials, learned similar information is hardly proof of a conspiracy, particularly in an environment in which reporters compete to obtain information and then try to confirm it with multiple sources. 

Conspiracy theories are always fun for speculation, but as the basis for a criminal charge against public officials accused of forming a secret cabal to manipulate the press, it seems like a bit of a stretch.  Then again, if anyone who was part of such a "conspiracy" came forward with some information (beyond speculation) about an agreement to have Plame's identity as a CIA covert agent made public, then Fitzgerald would have an important building block for any conspiracy prosecution: someone who was part of the agreement who can explain its operation.  The investigation appears to have reached its denouement, and now the tough decisions have to be made. (ph)

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