Friday 28 October 2005, 0:27am EST

By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON, Oct 28 (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and other top White House officials braced for criminal charges on Friday from the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative's identity.

The grand jury was expected to convene in the morning to consider the first charges in the two-year probe led by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

Legal sources involved in the case said Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, appeared likely to be charged with making false statements to the grand jury.

Fitzgerald has also zeroed in on Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's top political adviser, possibly for perjury. But lawyers involved in the case said Fitzgerald may not be prepared at this time to bring charges against Rove.

The New York Times, citing people briefed officially about the case, said Rove would not be indicted along with Libby on Friday but would remain under investigation.

Despite initial denials, both Rove and Libby spoke to reporters in June and July 2003 about the CIA operative, Valerie Plame.

It was unclear how Fitzgerald would keep the Rove investigation going since the current grand jury is scheduled to expire on Friday.

The Times said Fitzgerald was likely to extend its term. But federal guidelines suggest that Fitzgerald would have to seek a new grand jury because the current one has served the maximum allowable amount of time.

Other current and former administration officials could also face charges on Friday, lawyers said.

Indictments in the case could trigger an immediate shake-up at the White House, already on the defensive over the response to Hurricane Katrina, opposition to the Iraq war and the withdrawal of Bush's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Harriet Miers.

Plame's identity was leaked to the media after her diplomat husband, Joseph Wilson, accused the Bush administration of twisting prewar intelligence to support military action against Iraq. Wilson said it was done deliberately to erode his credibility.

Libby was a key, behind-the-scenes figure in helping build the administration's case for the invasion of Iraq.

In the run-up to Friday's grand jury session, Fitzgerald conferred in secret with his legal team and with attorneys representing some of the potential defendants, including Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin.


One lawyer involved in the case said the attorneys made final appeals to Fitzgerald to try to avoid indictment, raising the prospect of last-minute plea agreements.

When asked whether Rove was trying to negotiate Fitzgerald down to a lesser charge, Luskin responded: "False."

White House officials have been anxiously awaiting Fitzgerald's decision since any indicted officials were expected to immediately resign. Bush was then likely to make a public statement.

"He (Rove) is the president's right arm, as we all know. And the president's in a deep hole and it's very hard to climb out of a hole without your right arm," David Gergen, a former aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, told CNN's Larry King.

In a last-minute flurry of interviews, FBI agents canvassed Plame's neighborhood to see if anyone knew about her covert work for the spy agency before her cover was blown in a July 14, 2003, newspaper column by Robert Novak.

Both Libby and Rove have been advised by the prosecutor that they could be indicted, though not necessarily for knowingly revealing Plame's identity.

Legal sources said Rove could instead face perjury charges for initially failing to tell the grand jury he talked to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper about Plame.

Lawyers said Libby was open to false statement and obstruction charges because of contradictions between his testimony and that of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and other journalists.

According to a recent New York Times report, Libby first learned about Plame in a conversation with Cheney on June 12, 2003. That account appears to be at odds with Libby's testimony to the grand jury that he first learned about the CIA officer from reporters.