Prosecutors investigating the outing of a covert CIA operative opened a Web site on Friday to post possible indictments next week and were said by lawyers in the case to be focusing on whether top White House aides tried to conceal their actions from investigators.
Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's top political adviser, and Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, are at the center of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into who leaked the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
Plame's identity was leaked to the media after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, challenged the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq.
The lawyers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Fitzgerald appeared likely to bring charges next week after the nearly two-year investigation.
The CIA leak grand jury, which finishes on October 28, convened on Friday with two of the lead prosecutors present, but it was unclear what issues they were working on.
Fitzgerald is expected to meet with the grand jury for a possible vote on indictments as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.
Lawyers involved in the case said prosecutors have likely already started laying out their final case to jurors, either for bringing indictments or to explain why there was insufficient evidence to do so.
After the grand jury broke up, the two prosecutors, lugging heavy legal briefcases, left the courthouse without comment.
In what some lawyers interpreted as a sign Fitzgerald would bring indictments, the Justice Department created a special Web site for the leak investigation at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/iln/osc/index.html.
"It raises the prospects" of indictments, one lawyer in the case said, arguing that it was doubtful Fitzgerald would launch the site if he had no intention of taking action.
Others suggested it could be part of an effort by Fitzgerald to increase pressure on potential targets to cut a deal. "We're all grasping at straws," one lawyer conceded.
Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, dismissed all the speculation. "I caution you not to read into it," he said.
While Fitzgerald could still charge administration officials with knowingly revealing Plame's identity, several lawyers in the case said he was more likely to seek charges for easier-to-prove crimes such as making false statements. He may also seek charges for obstruction of justice and disclosing classified information, or bring a broad conspiracy charge, the lawyers said.
Legal sources said Rove could be in legal jeopardy for initially not telling the grand jury he talked to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper about Plame. Rove only recalled the conversation after the discovery of an e-mail message he sent to Stephen Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser.
Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, had no immediate comment.
Luskin said earlier this week that Rove "has at all times strived to be as truthful as possible and voluntarily brought the Cooper conversation to Fitzgerald's attention."
Libby could be open to false statement and obstruction charges because of contradictions between his testimony and that of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and other journalists. Miller has testified she discussed Wilson's wife with Libby as many as three times before columnist Robert Novak publicly identified her.
Libby has said he learned of Wilson's wife from reporters, but journalists have disputed that.
In a memo to New York Times staff, Executive Editor Bill Keller said reporter Judith Miller appeared to have misled the newspaper about being on the "receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign."
"I missed what should have been significant alarm bells," Keller wrote, adding that the Times might have been more willing to compromise with Fitzgerald had he known the details of "Judy's entanglement with Libby."
Miller spent 85 days in jail before cutting a deal to testify.
Wilson says White House officials identified his wife, damaging her ability to work undercover, to discredit him for accusing the administration of twisting intelligence to justify the Iraq war in a New York Times opinion piece on July 6, 2003.
He said on Friday that he and his wife were considering filing a civil lawsuit against top administration officials.