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Pursuing the CIA leak: profile of a tough, smart lawyer

Prosecutor offers a long paper trail of determination

WASHINGTON -- The White House aides and journalists at the center of Patrick J. Fitzgerald's probe into how a spy's cover was blown have little in common with the accused terrorists and mobsters he has pursued for most of his career.

But for Fitzgerald, a prosecutor who is known for being as tough and relentless as he is brilliant, that's a distinction without a difference.

The 44-year-old Brooklyn native, seems to be as determined to find out whether one of President Bush's top advisers is responsible for the leak as he was to build a case against Osama bin Laden, whom he indicted in 1998, or as he was to imprison John Gambino, the purported New York crime family captain, which he did in 1994.

It's a matter of law, and anyone who knows Fitzgerald knows he doesn't hang back when he believes a crime might have been committed -- no matter what the crime might be.

''At a certain point, we have to yield to law because if we don't, we're lost," Fitzgerald told a judge on July 6, the day that New York Times reporter Judith Miller went to jail at his request for refusing to testify about her sources.

The mentality is classic Fitzgerald, colleagues and friends say. But at times his aggressive tactics have drawn controversy.

Fitzgerald's decision to force journalists to disclose their sources has been criticized by reporters and legal analysts, who say it could irreparably damage the news media's ability to do their work.

Others, including some critics, call it a clever and necessary move that could help Fitzgerald solve a puzzling case.

Months into the investigation, nobody has been charged, but reverberations of the prosecutor's tactics are being felt at the highest echelons of government.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have sat for questioning by Fitzgerald, the US attorney from Chicago who was tapped by the Justice Department in December 2003 to handle the leak case.

Karl Rove, a top Bush aide, is under fire for his involvement in the matter, after Fitzgerald subpoenaed e-mail messages from Time magazine correspondent Matt Cooper detailing a conversation in which Rove mentioned the agent, Valerie Plame, although not by name.

Scott McClellan, Bush's press secretary, has been fielding questions daily from journalists at the White House, demanding to know why he denied two years ago that Rove was involved.

Fitzgerald declined to be interviewed. Friends, colleagues, and adversaries say the aggressive methods he has employed in the CIA leak case are typical of the workaholic Chicago prosecutor, an Amherst College Phi Beta Kappa in math and economics with a Harvard law degree who has excelled at taking unorthodox approaches to problems.

''Pat always sees beyond the obvious in a case," said David N. Kelley, a friend who worked organized crime and terrorism cases alongside Fitzgerald in the US attorney's office in Manhattan.

One night, shortly after both had started there, Kelley gazed down at stacks of files in a case he was handling, certain he was about to lose. Colleagues who came by to read his notes agreed that Kelley was doomed. Fitzgerald wasn't among them.

''Pat looked at it and said to me, 'Have you thought about it this way?' And I hadn't," said Kelley, who is now Manhattan's top federal prosecutor. Kelley worked all night drafting a brief based on Fitzgerald's idea and salvaged his case.

Fitzgerald was born Dec. 22, 1960, the son of Irish immigrants; his father was a doorman on Manhattan's Upper East Side. They raised him in Flatbush. He won a scholarship to attend Regis High School, a Jesuit institution known as one of the city's best, working as a janitor and a doorman to save money for college.

At Amherst, he stood out. Strikingly intelligent, he had a gift for distilling huge amounts of complex information into a simple, understandable narrative that his classmates could understand. Friends turned to him after economics class for a translation of the day's lesson, Tony Bouza said.

''He was born with an amazing brain," Bouza said. Fitzgerald always took pains to be ''unassuming and nonintimidating," aware that his intellect might put people off, he added.

Still, there were early signs of his grit. Fitzgerald took up rugby -- a bruising sport he would continue through college, law school, and into his early days as a lawyer in Manhattan -- and allowed friends glimpses of what Bouza called a ''clever, sarcastic wit."

All were traits that would serve him well as a prosecutor in New York.

A three-day summation of his case against Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was typical of Fitzgerald. He delivered the summation -- for a case whose record spanned 22,000 pages, with an additional 20,000 pages of exhibits -- just from notes.

''It was masterful," said Andrew C. McCarthy, one of Fitzgerald's trial partners in the ''Day of Terror" case, in which 11 defendants stood trial.

The jury agreed. The ''Blind Sheik" was sentenced to life, and Fitzgerald, fearing that Abdel-Rahman would try to incite violence among his followers from prison, used a never-before-applied law to have Abdel-Rahman incarcerated in isolation.

Some critics fault Fitzgerald for such moves, accusing him of abusing his power and going beyond what is necessary or appropriate.

He took heat for his handling of a 2002 terrorism case in which he set out to prove that Enaam Arnaout, director of the Islamic charity Benevolence International, was funneling money to Al Qaeda.

The staff of the independent Sept. 11 Commission criticized Fitzgerald's methods. ''Although effective in shutting down its targets, this aggressive approach raises potential civil liberties concerns," they wrote.

Allies defend Fitzgerald against allegations that he is overzealous. ''He is aggressive, but I think appropriately so," said Mary Jo White, a former top prosecutor in Manhattan, who called Fitzgerald ''a brilliant legal mind and a brilliant investigative mind."

Above all, friends and coworkers say, Fitzgerald seems untroubled by controversy.

''I don't think it weighs on him at all, not to say he's oblivious to what's going on around him," White said.

''But at the end of the day," White said, ''he's totally independent and objective, and is not going to back down."

Patrick J. Fitzgerald

Born: 1960 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Age: 44

Education: Bachelor of arts, 1982, Amherst College; juris doctor, 1985, Harvard Law School.

Experience: Civil litigator, 1985-88, in a New York law firm. Assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York, 1998-2001, including chief of narcotics unit, national security coordinator, and chief of the organized crime-terrorism unit; successfully tried four defendants in connection with the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and indicted Osama bin Laden in a criminal investigation. United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, 2001-present; in 2003, he won a guilty plea on a fraud charge from the head of an Islamic charity in Chicago after agreeing to dismiss the original terrorism charges.

Family: Single

Sources: Who's Who, news reports

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