Jitters at the White House Over the Leak Inquiry - New York Times

Mr. Rove's first challenge on Wednesday morning came before he cleared his driveway: how to get past the five television crews and the three photographers waiting for him. He flashed his blinding high beams into the camera lenses and sped by.

That is the way things are for the Bush White House these days. The routines are the same. But everything, in the glare of the final stages of a criminal investigation that has reached to the highest levels of power in Washington, is different.

Mr. Rove is scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury on Friday, the fourth time he will have done so in the case, which centers on the disclosure of an undercover C.I.A. officer's identity.

Mr. Rove, deputy White House chief of staff for policy and senior adviser, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, are the most prominent administration officials to find themselves squirming under the attention of the hard-nosed special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and the attendant news media scrutiny.

But the inquiry has swept up a dozen or more other officials who have been questioned by investigators or have testified before the grand jury, and, should it lead to the indictment of anyone at a senior level, it has the potential to upend the professional lives of everyone at the White House for the remainder of Mr. Bush's second term.

The result, say administration officials and friends and allies on the outside who speak regularly with them, is a mood of intense uncertainty in the White House that veers in some cases into fear of the personal and political consequences and anger at having been caught in the snare of a special prosecutor. And given how badly things have been going for Mr. Bush and his team on other fronts - a poll released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center put his approval rating at 38 percent, a new low - they hardly have deep reserves of internal enthusiasm or external good will to draw on.

"Everyone is going about the work at hand while bracing for the worst case," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to get around the official White House position that it will not comment on the investigation.

Most administrations come to a point like this, at risk of being paralyzed internally and frozen externally in the klieg lights of scandal. To those who worked in the White House under Bill Clinton, it was almost a way of life and such a searing experience that many former Clinton officials have more than a dollop of sympathy for what their successors in power are going through.

"In this presumption of guilt culture, which is what has come about in Washington in the last 10 or 15 years, there must be a sense of anger there and an inability to manage the facts," said Lanny J. Davis, a lawyer in Washington who was brought into the Clinton White House to help deal with the multiple investigations of that administration. "It's hard to imagine how bad it is. You sit at your desk and you know what the facts are, but you can't get them out to the public because the lawyers tell you you can't - or if you can, the noise from the presumption of guilt culture overwhelms the facts."

Mr. Bush joked late last year with Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, about why Mr. Cooper was not yet in jail for fighting a subpoena demanding that he testify about a conversation with a source who later turned out to be Mr. Rove. These days, though, the leak investigation is almost never spoken of openly within the West Wing, and certainly not made light of, administration officials say.

Lawyers for most of the officials who have testified before the grand jury have by and large chosen not to share information with one another, leaving colleagues largely in the dark about what others are telling Mr. Fitzgerald.

There is a presumption inside the White House that anyone who was indicted would resign or go on leave to fight the charges, though it is unclear what planning has taken place for that possibility.

Jitters at the White House Over the Leak Inquiry - New York Times


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