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The spy next door left couple in dark

Plame's neighbors cite visit by FBI as probe wraps up

WASHINGTON -- David and Victoria Tillotson knew Valerie Plame as a neighbor and friend for more than five years. Plame was, the Tillotsons believed, an international economic consultant, taking occasional trips abroad while looking after her young children in an upper-class enclave of Northwest Washington.

Then, one morning in 2003, David Tillotson read a Robert Novak column that quoted two unidentified administration officials as saying Plame was a CIA operative. ''I was stunned," Tillotson said.

Yesterday, Tillotson said he had shared his surprise with FBI agents on Monday, who questioned him about whether he had any inkling of Plame's CIA work before the Novak column was published.

The FBI visit came as special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is wrapping up his investigation into whether White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby leaked Plame's identity.

Fitzgerald met with the grand jury yesterday without making an announcement about indictments, and also met for 45 minutes with Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan of US District Court in Washington.

The developments kept the White House in suspense about one of the most highly anticipated federal investigations of in recent years.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday again declined to comment on the investigation. ''Everybody is focused on the priorities of the American people," he said, while also acknowledging that White House staffers are ''following developments in the news."

As part of his probe, Fitzgerald is checking whether it was publicly known that Plame worked at the CIA.

Tillotson, a communications lawyer, believes the visit by FBI agents demonstrates the special counsel is double-checking his theory that the leak by administration officials exposed Plame as a CIA operative, even to some of her close friends. Plame is the wife of Joseph Wilson, a former US ambassador who was sent by the CIA to investigate assertions that Iraq was trying to acquire material for nuclear weapons from Niger. After Wilson publicly expressed his doubts, his wife's identity as a CIA operative was leaked. That led Wilson to say that his wife's job was disclosed by White House officials seeking retribution against him.

Tillotson recalled that one day in early July 2003, Wilson pulled him aside and told him to look for an op-ed piece he was writing in The New York Times. In that article, Wilson wrote that ''some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraq threat." More than a week later, on July 14, the identity of Wilson's wife was reported by Novak in a column.

''We were stunned, despite the fact that we knew them well," Tillotson said, referring to Plame and her husband. ''We understood she worked for some company doing economic consulting on an international basis. I heard my wife in the kitchen saying, 'No, that can't be.' It didn't fit the person we knew at all."

Tillotson's wife, Victoria, recalled that she shouted in disbelief ''because I thought that Novak had it wrong. I really thought that Novak was misinformed because I was so convinced she was an economist." Indeed, Victoria Tillotson recalled asking Plame about the stock market and got what turned out to be good advice.

Fitzgerald has spent two years investigating whether the White House broke a law that prohibits officials from knowingly disclosing the identity of a covert CIA official. Much of the investigation has focused on whether Rove, President Bush's deputy chief of staff, and Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, leaked Plame's identity to reporters. But Fitzgerald also may be conducting a wider probe of whether administration officials conspired to obstruct justice, engaged in perjury, or leaked classified intelligence as part of a strategy to justify the war in Iraq.

Fitzgerald made no comment yesterday after meeting with the grand jury, which is slated to finish its work by Friday unless Fitzgerald asks for an extension.

To maintain her cover story as an international economist, Plame pretended to have a Boston office at 101 Arch St.

Plame's cover was that she worked for a firm called Brewster Jennings & Associates. But aside from a post office box and a phone number, the firm did not exist.

Still, when she gave $1,000 to Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000 under her married name of Victoria Wilson, she listed her employer as Brewster Jennings and said her occupation was ''analyst."

David Tillotson said the FBI agents told him they were ''wrapping up the investigation and tying up loose ends."

Tillotson said half of his 10-minute conversation with FBI agents was about leaks, but not just leaks of the name of a CIA operative. The ceiling in Tillotson's ceiling home had sprouted some water leaks, and the agents politely discussed the problem with Tillotson before heading off to interview other neighbors.

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com

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