Washington // It's not often that President Bush, who casts himself as decisive and bold, is cut off from decisions of grave importance to his presidency.
But as he and his team brace for the results of a lengthy CIA leak investigation that has reached inside his famously cloistered White House, threatening to topple his senior aides and tarnish his image, Bush is watching, powerless, from the sidelines.
The immediate risks for the president are clear: the possible indictment of Karl Rove, one of his closest and most influential advisers; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's powerful chief of staff; or others in his administration. What might be harder to measure is the effect on Bush and his presidency of such blows, which could come during the next two weeks, when Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor leading the probe of how a covert CIA agent's identity was revealed, is expected to wrap up his two-year investigation.
The stepped-up pace of Fitzgerald's work in recent weeks suggests that "he's coming to closure," said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor. And the prosecutor's intensifying focus on Rove, who gave his fourth round of grand jury testimony Friday, suggests that Bush's valued aide "is in harm's way."
"The White House can only hold its breath and pray," Gillers said.
A Rove indictment would shake the White House and damage Bush at a time of intense difficulty, robbing the president of the strategist he has relied on since his earliest days in politics, and tainting Bush and the rest of his inner circle by association.
"It's basically the figurative end of the Bush administration," said Paul C. Light, a New York University public service professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy.
"They're already teetering on lame-duck status," Light said, because of the outcry over Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, his choice of White House counsel Harriet E. Miers for the Supreme Court, and Republican leaders in the House and Senate under investigation.
Add an indictment, he added, and, "For all intents and purposes, you have an administration frozen in time for the next three years - it just couldn't be worse for them."
Losing Libby would likely create fewer ripple effects for Bush, but it would nonetheless reflect poorly on his administration, which initially claimed to have had no involvement whatever in outing Valerie Plame, a CIA operative whose husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, sought to discredit Bush's case for the war in Iraq.
Fitzgerald's probe has rattled the Bush White House, throwing off-balance a team known for steadiness in tumultuous times, and adding unpredictability for aides who prefer sticking to a meticulously crafted script.
The White House argued Friday that Bush and his staff aren't sidetracked by the investigation, saying the president is focused instead on priorities such as the outcome of the Iraqi constitutional referendum, helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina and addressing high gas prices.
"While there are other things going on, the White House doesn't have time to let those things distract from the important work at hand," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said just after Rove completed what his lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, said would be his final round of grand jury testimony.
Rove's multiple appearances have fueled speculation that he could be indicted, but Luskin said Friday that Rove hasn't been told he's a target of the probe.
Still, the investigation transcends the typical Washington scandal sideshow because it goes to the heart of Bush's most important decision as president: the war in Iraq. A key question for Fitzgerald has been whether White House aides exposed Plame to retaliate against her husband for writing a July 2003 op-ed piece in The New York Times contending that Bush twisted intelligence to strengthen his case for the war.
The prosecutor's work has shone a spotlight on a standard - but nonetheless unseemly - practice that politicians and operatives prefer to keep hidden: the hardball tactics used by presidents to smear their critics.
McClellan, in his first public comments about the leak investigation in July 2003, said, "That is not the way this president or this White House operates." But subsequent accounts by journalists who spoke to Rove and Libby indicate just the opposite, suggesting the two might have led a quiet White House effort to discredit Wilson's assertions about Iraq.
Fitzgerald's hunt has thus created a public-relations debacle for the White House, which has moved from categorical denials that Bush's aides had anything to do with the leak, to more measured statements by Bush promising to oust anyone indicted for a crime, to flat refusals to comment on a continuing investigation that appears closer by the day to snaring top aides.
Rove, 54, who spent 4 1/2 hours at a federal courthouse Friday, is at the center of the maelstrom. A college dropout gifted in politics and policy, Rove has been Bush's tutor and top strategist on both for three decades, making him as indispensable as he is fiercely loyal to the president.
Respected for his virtually encyclopedic mastery of the political districts around the country and feared for his ruthlessness in handling critics and adversaries, Rove is a valued asset and a controversial figure in Bush's inner circle.
Rove "has been instrumental in Bush's rise from the very beginning, because of his connection to politics and his fascination with policy and the close personal relationship that exists between them," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas who has studied the Bush-Rove partnership. "It puts Bush in a very dependent position."
Libby, 55, is further removed from the president as the top adviser to Bush's right-hand man, Cheney. An influential foreign policy voice in the administration, Libby also keeps a lower profile and has a narrower portfolio than Rove.
Any high-level indictment within his team would tar Bush to some extent, Light said, but "Rove is so central to the administration and so intimately tied to George Bush that his indictment would go to the heart of the president's judgment of people at a moment in time when that judgment is clearly in question" with the Miers nomination.
Rove has always operated close to the ethical edge, say those who have tracked his rise, but whispers that he engaged in shady dealings have never gone beyond unsubstantiated accusations. During the 2004 campaign, for instance, he was rumored - but never proved - to have been behind a campaign by Vietnam War veterans to discredit Democratic Sen. John Kerry's claims about his military service.
"He's been smart enough to avoid leaving a lot of smoking guns around," Buchanan said. "But where there's that much smoke, there's probably some fire, and this may be where they find it."
The investigation into Plame's unmasking began in 2003, after Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak mentioned her as a CIA operative in a July column, attributing the information to "two administration officials." A subsequent report in Time magazine also mentioned Plame's status as a CIA agent, pointing to government officials as its source. It's a crime for anyone with access to classified information to knowingly and intentionally expose a covert agent whose identity the government is actively trying to protect.
Both news accounts came just weeks after Wilson's New York Times piece, in which he recounted a February 2002 trip he took to Niger to investigate for the CIA whether Iraq bought "yellowcake" uranium there to be used to make a nuclear weapon. Although Wilson concluded that the transaction never took place, Bush referred to it in his 2003 State of the Union address, attributing the information to the British government.
Fitzgerald has gone to extraordinary lengths to get to the bottom of the leak, including interviewing Bush and Cheney in the White House, calling senior aides to testify, and holding reporters in contempt of court for refusing to break confidentiality promises to their sources and testify. New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who never wrote about Plame, went to jail for 85 days, agreeing to talk last month only after she said her source provided her with direct permission to do so.
The Times later reported that Libby was Miller's source. Recounting her grand jury testimony in yesterday's editions of the Times, Miller wrote that she first learned of Wilson's wife's employment with the CIA from Libby, who mentioned it in interviews both before and after the publication of Wilson's op-ed.
Another reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time, who avoided jail by testifying, wrote in his magazine that Rove was a source for his article on Plame's CIA job.
Fitzgerald now appears likely to be considering charging officials in a White House cover-up - for lying to investigators, for instance - rather than with national security crimes such as outing Plame or divulging classified information, once thought to be the focus of his probe, veteran prosecutors and legal analysts said.
"These are classic investigative strategies. If somebody's been dumb enough to lie to him, and to do so repeatedly, or if he's finding inconsistencies in the stories he's heard from Rove, Libby, Miller and others, what he's likely doing is investigating false statements, possible obstruction of justice or conspiracy to obstruct justice, or perhaps perjury," said Joseph E. diGenova, a former independent counsel who specializes in government investigations and white-collar crime.
White House investigations often end up focusing less on substantive crimes than they do on official cover-ups, as was the case in Watergate and former Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's extensive probe of the Clinton White House.
"You can be guilty of covering up an innocent act," NYU's Gillers said. "The government has an interest in getting to the bottom of it, whether it was a crime or not."
If Fitzgerald doesn't bring charges against anyone, he'll be barred from revealing much of what was divulged before the grand jury, sparing Bush the embarrassment of a detailed official accounting of his White House's role in the leak.
"If there are indictments, it will be the worst scenario possible for the White House," diGenova said.
But in the absence of criminal charges, he added, "much of the story will be known even without a report from" Fitzgerald. Those involved will likely start "gushing forth" about the case, diGenova said, and, "There ain't much that's going to be secret once this is over."