WASHINGTON — Almost three years ago, as Patrick J. Fitzgerald settled in as the newly appointed special counsel in charge of the Valerie Plame leak investigation, he learned a startling secret.
Washington was ablaze with speculation about who had revealed Plame's identity as a covert CIA officer to syndicated columnist Robert Novak; senior White House officials were considered the likely culprits. But Fitzgerald, reading FBI reports just after taking charge, learned that federal investigators already knew Novak's primary source -- a gossipy State Department official who seemed to have strained relations with the White House.
So if the mystery was already solved, why did Fitzgerald's investigation continue for almost 36 more months? Why does I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, still face criminal charges in connection with the Plame leak? And why were other senior officials left twisting in the wind, facing possible indictment?
Did the special counsel, operating behind the veil of secrecy of all such inquiries, abuse his authority in a witch hunt?
Such questions are at the heart of a furor that erupted late last month after the revelation that several months after Novak's column naming Plame appeared in July 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage had informed his superiors -- and then the Justice Department, which was investigating the leak -- that he had been Novak's primary source. Armitage's reasons for talking to Novak remain unclear. He was known for his skepticism on some aspects of President Bush's Iraq war strategy, but also for his penchant to gossip.
This week, breaking a silence he said Fitzgerald imposed, Armitage told "CBS Evening News," "I feel terrible, every day. I think I let down the president, I let down the secretary of State, I let down my department, my family, and I also let down Mr. and Mrs. Wilson."
The discovery of Armitage's role -- and the fact that it had been known to investigators so early -- is stirring administration defenders to fury.
After all, they say, the inquiry left the White House under a cloud of suspicion for months and created a costly distraction for senior officials, including political strategist Karl Rove and even Cheney.
"It's as if a giant hoax were perpetrated on the country -- by the media, by partisan opponents of the Bush administration, even by several Bush subordinates who betrayed the president and their White House colleagues," conservative commentator Fred Barnes wrote this week in a Weekly Standard Magazine column that listed Fitzgerald, the news media and others as the culprits.
Is such criticism of Fitzgerald's inquiry appropriate?
The special counsel declined to comment. And the argument has become intensely partisan.
Yet the information on Armitage -- first revealed in a new book -- along with court filings and interviews with former White House staffers and others familiar with the inquiry, suggest Fitzgerald pressed ahead because he learned quickly that Armitage was not alone in discussing Plame with reporters. Top White House officials had talked about her as well.
Fitzgerald, who had been the U.S. attorney in Chicago, was appointed special counsel Dec. 30, 2003, taking over a probe initiated by the Justice Department three months earlier at the request of the CIA.
According to the book "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War," by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Fitzgerald had barely arrived in Washington when he received a thick binder filled with FBI reports. They summarized interviews that agents had conducted with Armitage, Rove, Libby and others.
And the reports made clear that senior White House officials had been discussing Plame's status not just with Novak but with other Washington journalists -- including Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine.
Early on, the prosecutor learned that Rove may have been a corroborating source for the information Armitage provided to Novak. That fact alone would have compelled the special counsel to push on with the investigation, in the view of some experts.
"We now know that almost from the beginning of the case the prosecutor was confronted with two different investigative tracks," said Dan French, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration. One track was Armitage, the other Rove and his top-level colleagues at the White House, he said.
"Objectively, this represents two separate lines of inquiry and a prosecutor in this situation would feel compelled to pursue both," said French, who represented a witness in the case.
Former White House staffers have told The Times that in 2003, Rove and Libby seemed intent on undermining the credibility of Plame's husband, former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had been assigned by the CIA to look into reports that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to buy enriched uranium from the African nation Niger.