WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 — I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, first learned about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak investigation in a conversation with Mr. Cheney weeks before her identity became public in 2003, lawyers involved in the case said Monday.
Notes of the previously undisclosed conversation between Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney on June 12, 2003, appear to differ from Mr. Libby’s testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, from journalists, the lawyers said.
The notes, taken by Mr. Libby during the conversation, for the first time place Mr. Cheney in the middle of an effort by the White House to learn about Ms. Wilson’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was questioning the administration’s handling of intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear program to justify the war.
Lawyers said the notes show that Mr. Cheney knew that Ms. Wilson worked at the C.I.A. more than a month before her identity was made public and her undercover status was disclosed in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak on July 14, 2003.
Mr. Libby’s notes indicate that Mr. Cheney had gotten his information about Ms. Wilson from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in response to questions from the vice president about Mr. Wilson. But they contain no suggestion that either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Libby knew at the time of Ms. Wilson’s undercover status or that her identity was classified. Disclosing a covert agent’s identity can be a crime, but only if the person who discloses it knows the agent’s undercover status.
It would not be illegal for either Mr. Cheney or Mr. Libby, both of whom are presumably cleared to know the government’s deepest secrets, to discuss a C.I.A. officer or her link to a critic of the administration. But any effort by Mr. Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr. Cheney could be considered by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the case, to be an illegal effort to impede the inquiry.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Libby’s lawyer, Joseph Tate, would not comment on Mr. Libby’s legal status.
Mr. Fitzgerald is expected to decide whether to bring charges in the case by Friday when the term of the grand jury expires. Mr. Libby and Karl Rove, President Bush’s senior adviser, both face the possibility of indictment, lawyers involved in the case have said. It is not publicly known whether other officials may be charged.
The notes help explain the legal difficulties facing Mr. Libby. Lawyers in the case said Mr. Libby testified to the grand jury that he had first heard from journalists that Ms. Wilson may have had a role in dispatching her husband on a C.I.A.-sponsored mission to Africa in 2002 in search of evidence that Iraq had acquired nuclear material there for its weapons program.
But the notes, now in Mr. Fitzgerald’s possession, also indicate that Mr. Libby first heard about Ms. Wilson — who is also known by her maiden name, Valerie Plame — from Mr. Cheney. That apparent discrepancy in his testimony suggests why prosecutors are weighing false statement charges against him in what they interpret as an effort by Mr. Libby to protect Mr. Cheney from scrutiny, the lawyers said.
The notes do not show that Mr. Cheney knew the name of Mr. Wilson’s wife. But they do show that Mr. Cheney did know and told Mr. Libby that Ms. Wilson was employed by the C.I.A. and that she may have helped arrange her husband’s trip.
Some lawyers in the case have said Mr. Fitzgerald may face obstacles in bringing a false statement charge against Mr. Libby. They said it could be difficult to prove that he intentionally sought to mislead the grand jury. Lawyers involved in the case said they have no indication that Mr. Fitzgerald is considering charging Mr. Cheney with wrongdoing. Mr. Cheney was interviewed under oath by Mr. Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what the vice president told Mr. Fitzgerald about the conversation with Mr. Libby or when Mr. Fitzgerald first learned of it.
But the evidence of Mr. Cheney’s direct involvement in the effort to learn more about Mr. Wilson is sure to intensify the political pressure on the White House in a week of high anxiety among Republicans about the potential for the case to deal a sharp blow to Mr. Bush’s presidency.
Mr. Tenet was not available for comment on Monday night. But another former senior intelligence official said that Mr. Tenet had been interviewed by the special prosecutor and his staff in early 2004, and never appeared before the grand jury. Mr. Tenet has not talked since then to the prosecutors, the former official said.
The former official said he strongly doubted that the White House learned about Ms. Plame from Mr. Tenet.
On Monday, Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby both attended a cabinet meeting with Mr. Bush as the White House continued trying to portray business as usual. But the assumption among White House officials is that anyone who is indicted will step aside.
On June 12, 2003, the day of the conversation between Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby, the Washington Post published a front page story reporting that the C.I.A. had sent a retired American diplomat to the Niger in February 2002 to investigate claims that Iraq had been seeking to buy uranium there. The story did not name the diplomat, who turned out to be Mr. Wilson, but it reported that his mission had not corroborated a claim about Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear material that the White House had subsequently used in Mr. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.
An earlier anonymous reference to Mr. Wilson and his mission to Africa had appeared in a column by Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times on May 6, 2003. Mr. Wilson went public with his conclusion that the White House had "twisted" the intelligence about Iraq’s pursuit of nuclear material on July 6, 2003, in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times. The note written by Mr. Libby will be a key piece of evidence in a false statement case against Mr. Libby if Mr. Fitzgerald decides to pursue it, according to lawyers in the case. It also explains why Mr. Fitzgerald waged a long legal battle to obtain the testimony of reporters who were known to have talked with Mr. Libby.
The reporters involved have said that they did not supply Mr. Libby with details about Mr. Wilson and his wife. Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine, in his account of a deposition on the subject, wrote that he asked Mr. Libby whether he had even heard that Ms. Wilson had a role in sending her husband to Africa. According to Mr. Cooper, Mr. Libby did not use Ms. Wilson’s name but replied, "Yeah, I’ve heard that too."
In her testimony to the grand jury, Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times said that Mr. Libby sought from the start of her three conversations with him to "insulate his boss from Mr. Wilson’s charges."
Mr. Fitzgerald asked questions about Mr. Cheney, Ms. Miller said. "He asked for example, if Mr. Libby ever indicated whether Mr. Cheney had approved of his interview with me or was aware of them. The answer was no."
In addition to Mr. Cooper and Ms. Miller, Mr. Fitzgerald is known to have interviewed three other journalists who spoke with Mr. Libby during June and July 2003. They were Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, and Tim Russert of NBC News. Mr. Pincus and Mr. Kessler have said that Mr. Libby did not Mr. Wilson’s wife with them in their conversations during the period. Mr. Russert, in a statement, has declined to say exactly what he discussed with Mr. Libby, but said he first learned the identity of Mr. Wilson’s wife in the column by Mr. Novak, which appeared on July 14, 2003.