Grand Jury Hears Plame Case

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Sources with knowledge of the case tell TIME that behind closed doors at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse, nearby the Capitol, a grand jury began hearing testimony Wednesday in the investigation of who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.

Prosecutors are believed to be starting with third-party witnesses, people who were not directly involved in the leak of Plame's identity. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, claims that the leak was an act of retaliation against him for undercutting Bush's weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale for going to war in Iraq. Soon enough, witnesses with more direct knowledge will be called to testify, and a decision to subpoena journalists for their testimony will also be made. In December, the FBI asked some administration staffers to sign a waiver releasing reporters from confidentiality agreements in connection with any conversations they had about the Wilson affair. Novak's attorney, Jim Hamilton, had no comment about the latest developments.

Grand juries aren't always used in criminal probes, but they are the preferred way to go in cases with potential political fallout, if only to lend credibility to the result. One conclusion to be drawn from this latest step, said one lawyer familiar with the case, is that investigators clearly have a sense of how the case is shaping up. "They clearly have a sense of what's going on and can ask intelligent questions" to bring the grand jury up to speed. A grand jury is not a trial jury, but is used as an investigative tool and to decide whether to bring indictments in a case.

Anyone who's subpoenaed in the inquiry, noted the lawyer, can be almost certain that prosecutors aren't contemplating indicting him or her. Subpoenas are rarely sent to the targets of an investigation, and if they are, the recipients must be told in advance that they are considered targets—at which point they would almost certainly cite the 5th Amendment and refuse to answer questions.

A huge unanswered question in this case is whether the leaker or leakers knew that Plame was undercover when they gave her identity away. That is a necessary element for any indictment for leaking the name of a covert agent. However, charges could also be brought for making false statements to the FBI, if a guilty party has falsely claimed innocence in interviews with government agents.

It's also possible that prosecutors will learn who perpetrated the leak but won't have enough to bring charges. But true to form, the Bush administration continues to be extremely tight-lipped about the investigation -- even internally. "No one knows what the hell is going on," says someone who could be a witness, "because the administration people are all terrified and the lawyers aren't sharing anything with each other either."