WASHINGTON — Prosecutors investigating the leak of a CIA officer's identity returned their attention to White House advisor Karl Rove on Tuesday, questioning a former West Wing colleague about contacts Rove had with reporters in the days leading to the naming of the covert operative.
Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald also dispatched FBI agents this week to the CIA officer's neighborhood in Washington, asking neighbors whether they had been aware -- before her name appeared in a syndicated column -- that the operative, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA.
The questioning, described by lawyers familiar with the case and by neighbors, occurred as Fitzgerald was thought to be preparing indictments in the long-running investigation into the leak of Plame's identity.
The inquiry, which has reached deep into the White House and could come to an end this week, focused initially on determining who leaked the agent's name to reporters. More recently, Fitzgerald has appeared to turn his attention to possible perjury, obstruction of justice or conspiracy to violate laws prohibiting the distribution of classified secrets.
Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, were called before the grand jury hearing the case, along with numerous other senior White House staffers. Rove and Libby have been described as intent on discrediting the CIA operative's husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the war in Iraq.
In recent days, attention has centered on Libby and the vice president's office. On Tuesday, the focus appeared to shift again to Rove, a White House deputy chief of staff who has been called before the grand jury four times. Fitzgerald's investigators asked the former colleague about any comments Rove might have made about his conversations with journalists in the days before Plame's name was made public by columnist Robert Novak.
"It appeared to me the prosecutor was trying to button up any holes that were remaining," a lawyer familiar with the case said. The lawyer asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing inquiry.
Specifically, investigators asked about Rove's July 2003 conversations with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, the lawyer said.
Cooper had contacted Rove and asked about Wilson, who angered the White House in mid-2003 when he accused the administration of "twisting" intelligence information to justify going to war in Iraq.
The former ambassador had been dispatched by the CIA to investigate claims that Iraq had sought uranium from the African nation of Niger -- an allegation that President Bush referred to in his Jan. 28, 2003, State of the Union address as a justification for ousting Saddam Hussein. Wilson found little evidence to support the claims.
Cooper has told investigators that he called Rove to ask about Wilson's claims. Cooper, in an account of his testimony, wrote that Rove had warned him, "Don't get too far out on Wilson." Rove also told Cooper that the ambassador's wife worked at the CIA on weapons of mass destruction, though he did not mention her name, Cooper said.
Spokesmen for Fitzgerald and Rove declined to comment Tuesday.
White House officials also have declined to comment on the investigation and on recent reports that Fitzgerald was focusing at least in part on Cheney's office.
"There is a lot of speculation that is going on right now. There are many facts that are not known," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. "The work of the special prosecutor continues, and we look forward to him successfully concluding his investigation."
The flurry of last-minute questioning struck some observers as a way for the prosecutor to test arguments that defense lawyers in the case might have raised in the waning hours of the investigation to fend off charges.
Some of the questioning indicates that Fitzgerald may be considering indictments that some have viewed as too difficult to pursue, including prosecution under a federal law that makes it a felony to reveal the name of a covert agent.
On Monday, two FBI agents combed the northwest Washington neighborhood where Wilson and Plame live, showing their badges and questioning neighbors about whether they knew Plame worked for the CIA before her employer was revealed by Novak in July 2003.
Critics of the leak investigation have said it was an open secret that Plame worked for the CIA; if many people knew that she worked for the agency, it would make prosecution under the 1982 law protecting covert agents nearly impossible.
But neighbors contacted by The Times said they told the FBI agents that they had no idea of her agency life, and that they knew her as a mother of twins who worked as an energy consultant.
The agents "made it clear they were part of the Fitzgerald investigation, and they were basically tying up loose ends," said David Tillotson, a lawyer and neighbor who was among those interviewed Monday.